CLEARWATER — Nobody, it seems, really knew Warren Berquist. Not the kids he entertained in his spare time as Zippo the Clown. Not boastful co-workers in the Panama Canal Zone, who never suspected that the quiet tool and die maker was also a federal informer.
Not even his wife, Marie Altamura Berquist, who has spent the last several months trying to fill in the gaps of a diverse life without a narrator.
They met in a bereavement group in 1990 and married two years later, when Mr. Berquist was 65.
Mr. Berquist told few stories to his new family but answered their questions factually, often supplying dates.
Over the last several months, his wife quizzed him at Hospice Woodside about his history, taking notes on envelopes and in the margins of newspapers.
Those bits and pieces take their place in an ever-shifting pile of snapshots, certificates and military records on a glass dining room table.
Mr. Berquist, a career machinist and a Shriners clown, died Oct. 17 of a rare epidural cancer.
He grew up in Waltham, Mass., the eldest of seven children. "Each one in the family was quiet, and kept personal things personal," said Martha Phillips, 77, Mr. Berquist's sister.
Unlike the clown he portrayed, Mr. Berquist rarely laughed. But sometimes he managed a lopsided half-smile. "He was cute when he did it," said Marie Berquist, 78.
He enlisted in the Merchant Marine at age 17. Those records arrived only weeks ago, after Mrs. Berquist sought help from Rep. Gus Bilirakis. He served about a year, and was on board a Navy vessel that was hit by a suicide pilot. Mr. Berquist and 122 others were rescued after days in the Pacific Ocean, his wife said.
"All he knows is that there were sharks, there were bodies all around," Mrs. Berquist said. He trembled when she asked about the attack. Eventually, she stopped asking.
Brief careers as a boxer and a race car driver followed, his family said. There is a Golden Gloves amateur boxing medal in a maroon box on the table. Robert Nebesky of Clearwater said he remembers seeing Mr. Berquist on television in 1950. "He was skilled," said Nebesky, 78. "As soon as the bell rang for Round 1, he came out and he was throwing punches."
The Web site BoxRec.com shows Mr. Berquist's professional record at zero wins and five losses.
After a dozen years working as a machinist for government contractors in Cape Canaveral and New Orleans, Mr. Berquist relocated to the Panama Canal Zone in 1965. He stayed there 20 years, working as a tool and die maker. His low-key demeanor proved useful to the authorities, who were monitoring smuggling by federal employees
"It was the '60s and '70s, and there was a lot of drugs," said Paul Richards, a retired federal marshal who was working as a Canal Zone police officer when he met Mr. Berquist. "It suited him perfectly. Everybody knew he worked for the industrial division, and they never suspected.
"The information that he developed led to major drug arrests in the Canal Zone," Richards said.
Mr. Berquist moved to Clearwater in the late 1980s. In retirement, he traveled with Marie, who owned a travel agency, was a clown for Shriners shows and worked security at Tampa Bay Downs. For a while, Mr. Berquist and another clown ran a hot dog stand at U.S. 19 and Klosterman Road.
A Norman Rockwell clown portrait hangs on the wall of a "clown room" in his home, near a pair of oversized red and white shoes, clown masks, silk costumes, and an enormous yellow bow tie.
"He trained a lot of people as Shrine clowns," said Richards, 61. "There were so many I can't even guesstimate a number."
As Zippo the Clown, he raised money for Shriners Hospital in Tampa and its burn unit for children. Mr. Berquist, who never had children, seemed to enjoy the work. At least it gave him permission to laugh.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.