CLEARWATER — For more than 3,000 hours of his life, Joe Cafazzo volunteered to entertain sick people in hospitals, dressed in full clown regalia.
His sense of humor had always been cutting and delightful. But when he painted his face, he transformed into a sad clown.
He liked to try a little of everything.
"Until the day he died, he was very full of joy and humor," said his son-in-law, Stephen McCabe. "He was a richly contrasting man."
Mr. Cafazzo died Oct. 22 after battling myelodysplastic syndrome and leukemia. He was 68.
He had an accomplished Air Force career. He served a year in Vietnam and Cambodia, where he was in charge of a post office. Back in America, he taught college and worked with high school ROTC students. In 1982, he retired from the Air Force with the rank of major and moved to Clearwater to be near his mother.
He was happily married with children. He had financial security. He had traveled the world. He could have stopped and relaxed. Inevitably, though, the itch to learn something new surfaced.
He wasn't one to ignore it.
He briefly ran Cafazzo's Deli, a restaurant in Largo. It was popular and successful, but he passed it down to his daughter and took a job working at a local post office. He was curious to see how the job differed in America from overseas.
Satisfied, he went back into schools, teaching social studies at Seminole and Oak Groves middle schools. He was a popular teacher, and sixth-graders were his favorite.
"They were old enough that they were starting to understand the world, but they were young enough to have a childlike curiosity," said McCabe, 40.
Fifteen years ago, he channeled his own childlike spirit into the Morton Plant Mease Comedy Connection program, acting in the Caring Clown group. He also joined a magic society and trained hundreds of hospital volunteers, teaching them tricks and balloon animals.
As a clown, he went by "Teach."
While his conditioned worsened, he kept a bright outlook, making jokes about the grim situation. He knew when he died, his service should reflect who he was.
"He was a great lover of tradition and doing the right thing," McCabe said. "But at the same time, there was a very joyful, very playful, very childlike side to him."
At his wake, his magician friends performed a wand ceremony. His clown friends did a balloon ceremony. At the funeral, soldiers from MacDill Air Force Base played taps.
At the end, as requested, his friends and family got up, took a Sharpie and signed their names on his casket.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.