Unforgettable leader of the Clown Band dies

With his trademark toilet plunger in hand — it was his baton — “Big” George Wilson led his marching band from town to town, and decade to decade.

He was an original, one-of-a-kind, easy-going personality.

Though he could play nary a note and even less musical instruments, he stood out and conducted a talented group of master musicians who came from towns all across the state.

“Big” George Wilson, leader of the nationally-recognized Scottville Clown Band, died early Tuesday at age 81. A funeral mass will be held at St. Simon’s Catholic Church in Ludington on Saturday. Visitation will be held Friday evening at the Oak Grove Funeral Home in Ludington and burial, with military honors, will be at the Brookside Cemetery in Scottville. Members of the Clown Band will play at both the church service, and cemetery.

A humble family man who was proudly patriotic, Wilson was a journalist, radio personality, public servant — he once was mayor of Scottville — and so much more.

He was absolute king of the one-liners, too. He poked fun at everyone — at himself, more than anyone — and if anyone ever brought laughter to the conversation, he brought it by the bucket.

And, more than anything, he knew just when to pause, too, when to bring the parade to an immediate and meaningful stop — when he saw children in wheelchairs.

‘When it came to children, especially children in wheelchairs, George was very sentimental,” said Jim Krolczyk, 71 of Manistee. “There were many times he’d be leading us in a parade and he’d see a child in a wheelchair and he’s stop us and take his baton — his toilet plunger — over to that child so he or she could hold it.

“You could tell those kids really meant something to George, something special. He was a very considerate man and everybody liked him.”

Krolczyk, who has played trombone with the Clown Band for 36 years, said Wilson would also tear-up at the sight of the American flag.

“He was extremely patriotic,” Krolczyk said. “He loved it when we played our different service songs of the Army, Navy Marines and Air Force, and when we brought those service flags out front. He absolutely loved it.”

Henry Minster, 71 and also of Manistee, said Wilson was “…a big time practical joker.”

“But he joked with you in such a way that wouldn’t hurt your feelings, just make you laugh,” said Minster, who also plays trombone in the Clown Band. “He’ll be sorely missed. He’s already, missed.”

Rudy Grahek, a.k.a. “Dynamite the Clown” for over a half-century, played cymbals with the Clown Band from time to time. Over the years, the 79-year-old rural Reed City man became good friends with Wilson.

“George was just a great guy,” Grahek said. “Everybody liked him. He had so many funny sayings. I remember he used to say that it ‘never rained on a Clown Band parade, but there’s some might heavy dew out there.’

“Of course, everyone knows how patriotic he was. The flag and the (military) songs would bring tears to his eyes.”

Due to failing health, Wilson limited how far he would walk in parades with his fellow clown band members. He often simply sat at their concerts, too, and freely offered his comedic observations from his front row seat.

“He couldn’t get around so well in the past few years and sometimes he’d walk next to us in the parades, and then go back and ride in our bus that followed us in the parades,” Minster said. “He wanted to stay with us, for as long as he could.”

Former U.S. representative Pete Hoekstra issued a press release on the passing of Wilson.

“George Wilson was a friend, not only to me but to his thousands of loyal radio listeners in the greater Ludington area who tuned in over the course of his remarkable career,” Hoekstra said.

“Each day many of you welcomed ‘Big George’ into your homes. For years he welcomed me onto his show in the early morning hours. I looked forward to those weekly visits — they were special because George was special person. As a radio host, village president, and the drum major for Scottville Clown Band he always put the community that he cherished first.

“George Wilson will be sorely missed, but he will never be forgotten,” Hoekstra said. “Diane and I loved him dearly and were saddened to learn of his passing. We express our sympathy and offer our condolences to his family and to his many friends in the Ludington community.”

As one of the very few remaining members of the band’s legendary and honored “Class of ‘47” — those who joined the band just after World War II ended — Wilson wrote a simple footnote in his bio on the band’s website: “I was the ‘Fearless Leader’ on the street for over 60 year.”

“Fearless?” Perhaps.

But he was funny, too. And friendly. And very, very unforgettable.

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Posted by David L. Barber

David L. Barber is the retired editor of the Manistee News Advocate. He contributes columns weekly for the News Advocate. You can contact him at dlbarber1006@gmail.com.

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