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Adeline Keehan: On Passion, Family and Clowning Around

Adeline Keehan’s journey as a clown began in 1980, when her church sponsored her to attend an intense summer class in clowning at the University of California at Berkeley. Keehan emerged, diploma in hand, as “Bella,” a certified clown. “Upon registration, your face becomes your personal property,” says Keehan. “And, with that, you feel a strong sense of responsibility.” Keehan explains that each element of her makeup has a meaning. For example, she explains that the heart on her right cheek stands for love of people and entertaining, while her blue eyebrows signify humility. And she always puts her “face” on in front of her audience, followed by her wig, then costume.

All told, her program may include miming, singing, signing, tap and hula dancing, tuned bells and the guitar. Plus she performs magic, as well as ventriloquism with her puppet, Jingles.
For Keehan, it is the intrinsic rewards of being “Bella” and bringing joy to others that mean the most.

“One of my most profound moments as Bella was at a convalescent home,” relates Keehan. “A nurse warned me about going into a particular patient’s room. She said the woman had ‘given up’ and was non-responsive.” Keehan, however, decided to put just her hand through the woman’s door. “I took it as a positive step when she didn’t throw anything at me,” says Keehan. “Then she made a motion with her hand for me to come in. When I did, I saw that tears were rolling down her face. She told me that her dad had taken her to the circus as a child and that she had always loved the clowns.”

California or Bust
Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Keehan’s father was a businessman who moved the family to Gallup, where he operated a gasoline service station, motel, taxi service and a trailer park. Keehan recalls having her own uniform for helping out at the service station as a young girl, and eventually served as a taxi dispatcher in her early twenties.

She met and married her first husband on the campus of the University of New Mexico. The couple then moved to Chicago, just in time for the birth of their first daughter. “I remember saying I would go back to school when she was two and could go to nursery school,” says Keehan. “Ironically, I ended up saying the same thing with our second and third daughters.”

Eventually, the couple returned to Albuquerque and Keehan enrolled in the University of New Mexico where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

However, her husband was an engineer and engineering jobs were hard to come by in the Land of Enchantment. California, on the other hand, offered considerable opportunity. Ultimately, he accepted an offer from Aerojet in Azusa, and the young family made their new home in California where she achieved her teaching credential from the University of La Verne.

Puppets, Parades and Life Changes
Retired since 1991, Keehan was a fourth-grade teacher for 25 years. And in each of her classes, she shared the joy of clowning with her students. “I let them develop their own special designs, such as flowers, hearts and thunderbolts,” she says. “The funny thing was that every child ended up with a face just like mine!”

Keehan and her students also regularly participated in the Azusa Golden Days parade. Her classes made 15-foot puppets using beach balls covered in paper mache for heads and yarn for the hair, while Keehan made the bodies on her sewing machine. Students also played bells and square-danced in the parade. Needless to say, they consistently won over the judges, earning trophies year after year. Additionally, Keehan’s class adopted a convalescent home, which they visited monthly and entertained the residents. When Keehan’s first husband passed away, she took early retirement, but found it difficult to stay away. She returned to teaching and met Leonard Hill, a high school art teacher. The two married soon afterward and enjoyed nearly two decades of marriage; Hill passed away suddenly, from an aneurysm, in September 2010.

Bells, Bells and More
During her many travels with her first husband, Keehan caught her self-professed “collector’s fever.” She began collecting bells from each country they visited, primarily because they were inexpensive souvenirs. Then one day, while browsing in a San Dimas antique store, she saw a publication from the American Bell Association. That led to contacting the Southern California Campanology Club, which she discovered was part of a huge international organization.

What she learned prompted Keehan to begin collecting antique bells in earnest including some dating back to the 17th century. “Each has its own unique story, such as where it’s from and how it was made,” she says, noting her personal collection now exceeds 3,500 bells including a set of tuned sleigh bells. Keehan regularly presents bell programs—free of charge—to women’s clubs, antique groups, schools and church groups, often hosted in her home. During the month of December, Keehan’s program also includes 22 themed Christmas trees that feature everything from clowns, cats and angels, to elephants and dolls. She says average group size is about 25 – 40, but has had busloads of up to 80 people visit, all simply by word of mouth.

Passionate Pursuits
One of Keehan’s greatest passions is her family, which includes her three daughters— Debra, Roberta and Pamela— all elementary school teachers. She also has 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. The retired teacher has also been actively involved for some 45 years in the Philanthropic Educational Organization (PEO), which provides scholarships to deserving young women. Most recently, Keehan hosted a fundraising tea for the PEO in her home, where each impeccably coordinated table featured her own matching tea sets—another of her collecting fascinations.

A true “Renaissance” woman, Keehan writes poetry, dabbles at painting and drawing, and enjoys Tai Chi. She holds offices in the PEO, Southern California
Campanology Club and the Clare mont Women’s Club, to name a few. Keehan also volunteers for Meals on Wheels and is a member of the Red Hat Society. And she continues to entertain (as Bella, often with Jingles at her side) at convalescent homes, clubs, church groups and hospitals for children and veterans.

Author Margaret Lee Runbeck said, “Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” It’s safe to say that Adeline Keehan is exceedingly well traveled.

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