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Circus performer Ossian Wirengard, 104, painted pictures in the sky

Ossian and Emma Lena Wirengard started performing as a couple in 1951 when he was 45 and she was 38. Two of their children also became part of the aerial act. In 1953, they performed at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Emma Lena Wirengard died in 1999.

Courtesy of the Wirengard family

Ossian and Emma Lena Wirengard started performing as a couple in 1951 when he was 45 and she was 38. Two of their children also became part of the aerial act. In 1953, they performed at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Emma Lena Wirengard died in 1999.

TAMPA — He was born with clubfoot. She was afraid of heights.

Yet Ossian and Emma Lena Wirengard performed for more than 20 years together atop a 90-foot pole.

They balanced and posed in heart-stopping ways. Without benefit of a net, he lifted her above his head while standing on a rotating 18-inch pedestal.

"Like making pictures in the sky," said his daughter, Osa Flory.

The Wirengards traveled through Europe, South Africa and the United States, captivating crowds from county fairs to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Mr. Wirengard had good reason to trust the steel rigging that offered him the best chance of living through his act: He had made it. In retirement in Tampa, he built circus equipment in a backyard machine shop.

Mr. Wirengard, the fiercely independent patriarch of a circus family, died Aug. 30 at home. He was 104.

He was born Dec. 25, 1906, in Oljehult, Sweden as Victor Ossian Israelsson. For the first several years of his life, he wore a brace on his right leg.

"By 6 or 7, he could walk better on his hands than on his legs," said Flory, 68.

Surgery at age 10 largely corrected the foot. As a teenager, he helped out at his father's mill and performed acrobatics with his brother, Gosta.

They called their act the Wirengard Brothers (Mr. Wirengard would later adopt the stage name legally), working at variety shows held in public parks. At 28, Mr. Wirengard fell for the only time in his career — a 30-foot drop that broke his back.

In 1935, he married Emma Lena Svensson, who stood barely 5 feet tall. They raised five children while Mr. Wirengard continued to perform.

It became a family act in 1951 when Mr. Wirengard was 45, his wife 38. At her husband's urging, she had dropped a few pounds and climbed the high pole and overcome her fear. Daughter Hjordis and son Bernt also got into the act. After a year in South Africa, the family performed during celebrations surrounding the 1953 crowning of Queen Elizabeth II.

"Just another gig," said son Bernt Wirebjer, 75, who went on to a solo daredevil career of his own working atop a flexible "sway pole."

The Wirengards spent the summer of 1955 performing at Atlantic City's Steel Pier, where horses dove every day off a 60-foot platform into the ocean.

By 1959, the children grown, Ossian and Emma Lee Wirengard were working as a couple, using the art form they had perfected.

"He truly was unique," said Maureen Brunsdale, a special collections librarian at Illinois State University, who oversees circus history. "It seems like an incredibly ingenious act that rolled a lot of death-defying elements into one."

The Wirengards performed all over the country, including Alaska and Hawaii. They even set up their pole on top of a Houston skyscraper.

Mr. Wirengard steered an equally singular course in his private life. He battled at chess, challenged himself by building clever pictograms for his wife and solved a Rubik's cube.

The same rebelliousness that once led him to defy a birth defect extended every direction — including God, whom he termed a "fantasy."

Mr. Wirengard last performed in 1971 at Treasureland, a now-defunct theme park on Busch Boulevard. At 65, he launched a new career building equipment from tiger cages to trapeze riggings that became an industry standard.

"Not too many people around know how to build a stand for an elephant to do a handstand on," said Robert Wirengard, his son.

A woodworking hobby kept him going as he approached the century mark. The wooden butter knives, candleholders and jewelry boxes lie in abundance around the house, although he used the machine shop less after Emma Lena died in 1999.

Today, the backyard shop brims over with wood scraps, drill bits, old welding masks and the smell of sawdust from long-ago projects. To Flory, the creative clutter sums up her father's restless spirit.

"It shows you how much you can learn from life, and from working," she said.

Researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.BIOGRAPHY

Ossian Wirengard

Born: Dec. 25, 1906.

Died: Aug. 30, 2011.

Survivors: Sons Bernt Wirebjer and Robert Wirengard; daughters Osa Flory and Hjordis Vanover; numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Service: 2 p.m. Saturday; Stowers Funeral Home, 401 W Brandon Blvd., Brandon.

Circus performer Ossian Wirengard, 104, painted pictures in the sky 09/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 15, 2011 12:04am]

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