A Clown of His Own

Now for a few words about Raymond Thunder-Sky, subject of a silvery monument that stands in front of the Hellmann Creative Center at 321 MLK Jr. Boulevard in Covington.

Raymond Thunder-Sky monument in front of the Hellmann Creative Center in Covington.

Raymond Thunder-Sky monument in front of the Hellmann Creative Center in Covington.

Raymond was a Cincinnati icon. He used to show up around construction sites downtown – a stocky, 50-ish man carrying a toolbox, wearing a hard hat, dressed in a clown costume. Hardly anyone who saw him knew his name, but he was a familiar figure wherever something was being torn down or under construction in Greater Cincinnati.

I caught up with Raymond nearly 20 years ago when I came across an issue of Threshold, the newsletter from RHMR, formerly known as Resident Homes for the Mentally Retarded.  There was a photograph of Raymond in a hard hat, this time in bib overalls. 

In the photo, he was hammering a nail, helping restore a house for a low-income family in South Bend, Indiana, where Pete Buttigieg one day would become mayor.  The expression on Raymond’s face suggested that here’s a guy who has found the work he was meant to do.

Richard Riegel was one of thousands of people who worked downtown and watched Raymond from a distance for a moment or two before moving on, wondering who he was:

“When I first saw him in that clown-construction-worker getup downtown, I thought he was doing some sort of publicity for a construction company or radio station.  But when he kept reappearing in that garb, without a sign or any obvious promotion going on, I decided he must be individually dedicated to that costume for some reason.

“I’d see him waiting at bus stops all over the area, way out Beechmont Avenue and so on.  I started calling him ‘The Construction Clown’ in my mind.”

One day, Richard stopped for lunch at the Wendy's on Vine in Hartwell.  He was washing up in the restroom when the door swung open and in walked Raymond Thunder-Sky.  Richard recognized him instantly, even though Raymond wasn't in full costume yet. In an odd way, Richard said, he felt honored by his presence.

“The men's room in that Wendy's is one big room without any stall or privacy area, and I could tell The Construction Clown was impatient for me to get out so he could change, so I did.

“While I was eating, he emerged from the restroom in his clown suit and hard hat and bought a drink to go.  Then he crossed Vine Street to wait for the bus to downtown.  After he sat down on the bus bench, he fastened his ruffled collar around his neck and was fully ready for his public once again.”

Judy Harrell of Cleves retired last fall as manager of Cappell's Annex, a store that carries clown costumes.  Raymond was a regular customer at Cappell’s Annex.  Judy Harell, who used to manage the story, often waited on him.  She said he didn't have much to say, but he was clear about what he wanted.

“I called him ‘Friday’ because that's when I usually saw him,” Judy said.

“He'd smile and indicate things he wanted to inquire about.  One time in particular, he picked out a clown suit – a blue-and-yellow parti-color, meaning it was half blue and half yellow.

“It looked great on him.  It was the most expensive suit we had, around $40, but that didn't bother him.  It came with a ruffled collar and a conical cap. He took the collar, but the hat didn't interest him.  Hats, he already had.”

Judy mentioned it had been a few months since she’d seen him.  Then she heard he'd been hanging out at the Paul Brown Stadium construction site.

“Well, a man does what a man has to do,” Judy said.

“Right now, I guess what he’s is doing is making sure that stadium goes up all right.”

I first approached Raymond four or five years earlier, when the Aronoff Center for the Performing Arts was taking shape.

He was in an orange suit with large white polka dots and one of those frilly Elizabethan collars.  Someone had told me his name was Raymond Thunder-Sky and that he was shy.

That last part proved true.  When I introduced myself, he turned and walked briskly away.  It was clear our encounter had frightened him, so I decided not to bother him again.  Then I saw his photo in the RHMR newsletter.

This is a small part of Raymond’s story.  His father was Richard Brightfire Thunder-Sky, the last hereditary chief of the Mohawk tribe.  His mother, the former Irene Diana Szalatzky, was the daughter of a Hungarian nobleman with direct ties to the Hapsburgs.

Raymond was born in 1950 in California, a few years after his mother lost her eyesight to glaucoma.   His father worked as an actor in the days when Hollywood was producing lots of cowboys-and-Indians shoot-em-up movies.  Chief Thunder-sky appeared in nine such flicks in all, including “Indian Territory” with Gene Autry.

The family came to Cincinnati in 1961.  According to long-time family friend Larry Higdon, Raymond’ is on the autism spectrum.  His father suffered a massive stroke in 1979 and spent much of the rest of his life at the Veterans hospital in Fort Thomas, until his death 10 years later.

It was around the time of his father’s stroke that Raymond discovered the circus.  The Shrine Circus was appearing at Cincinnati Gardens, within walking distance of Raymond’s home.  He bought a ticket, made a clown outfit of his own and wore it to the show.

“I remember Irene calling one day to tell me the neighbors were saying Raymond was wearing funny clothes,” said Larry, who is of Choctaw descent.

“Of course, she couldn’t see what he was wearing.  Likewise, Raymond’s speech is difficult to understand.  So I stopped by and there he was, dressed up in clown get-up.  I mean the full regalia.  I thought, well, if that’s what he wants to do, he’s not hurting anything.

“Now, I take him to every circus that comes to town.  All the clowns know him, know who he is.  They all make a big fuss over him.”

Larry also taught Raymond how to be a carpenter. In a previous career, as a consultant helping minorities navigate government construction bids, Larry occasionally found himself working as a contractor on some project or other. Whenever he could, he took Raymond along.  Larry would teach him about another new tool, and he’d set about using it diligently and purposefully.  Raymond is never so happy as when he has a hammer in his hand, he’s running a plank through a circular saw or he’s hanging drywall.

Raymond can read and write, although his spelling isn’t the greatest.  Then again, spelling isn’t all that important to being a clown or a carpenter.  Like I said earlier, he’s been hanging out down along the old Produce Row, watching the Paul Brown Stadium being built. The CG&E workers there all know him. According to Larry, the treat him with respect, as if he were one of them.               

Mostly, Raymond would draw pictures of the landscapes he’d see, of pile drivers, cable splicers, wrecking crews and giant cranes. He attached his own captions to his drawings and gives them to Larry.  Or to Gary Hardin, who has been working with Raymond for three years as his RHMR support staffer. 

“It’s humbling to know him, to realize how courageous he is,’’ Gary said. 

“In some ways, Raymond leads a lonely life.  But in the proper situation, he’d flourish.  In a perfect world, he’d be a carpenter on somebody’s payroll.  He’d do fine if he had the chance.” 

Larry agrees completely.  He says Raymnond would be hardest working carpenter ever.  

One more note about Raymond.  A few days before Christmas, wearing one of his four hard hats one of his 20 clown outfits, he stopped to see Santa Claus at Tower Place Mall.  What did he ask for?

“A white Christmas,” Larry says.

The white Christmas didn't work out that year.  OK, so it’s not a perfect world.  If it were, maybe we’d all be wearing clown suits.