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After more than 30 years of working in the Defense Department, the last five spent at the Pentagon dealing with issues related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Judy Kopff is taking more seriously her job as a clown.
Her last day at the office of the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Logistics & Materiel Readiness – Program Support) was yesterday. In her farewell note to colleagues, she writes: “I now plan to become a full-time volunteer clown and spend time during the week doing what I’ve had time to do only on weekends for the past few years: bringing smiles to the faces of children and children-at-heart.”
Kopff, who has brought her act, along with her husband, to NIH Children’s Inn, Children’s Hospital, Georgetown Hospital’s pediatric ward, and INOVA Fairfax’s pediatric ward, among other places, now plans to spend the bulk of her clown time at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. At Walter Reed, she feels a connection to the wounded vets and their families: the people her former job, in some way, affected.
She’s careful with the balloons around some, though. They pop. “So you can imagine the trauma that could bring up, especially if you’re a patient just back from Iraq or Afghanistan. So we’re careful. We ask. Or we just do magic tricks,” she says.
Sometimes she’ll ask patients what other VIPs, besides her, have visited. Some say the Secretary of Defense. “Oh, he’s my boss,” she’ll say. “But, to be honest, they’re more impressed with the Redskins cheerleaders.”
No matter. Kopff, 61, still plans to go often, driving from her Cleveland Park house to Mologne House on the grounds of Walter Reed, where she arrives in her getup, complete with a 3-foot baloon hat she gives away at each visit and clown shoes dating from the 1950s. She doesn’t wear face paint, since “some children and, really some adults, are afraid of a clown with face paint.”
The kids at Walter Reed, most of whom are dependents of the soldiers, “love it.” The parents welcome the distraction. Soldiers alone in a room will get the full clown treatment if they’re up for it. “There was this one guy, very handsome, probably in his mid-20s, about 6-5, in a wheelchair and missing a leg. He was outside smoking with his mom and yelled to me: ‘Hello, Clown. If you ever want to get rid of those shoes, I’m a size 16….I can take one of them.’ So they make me laugh sometimes.”
Kopff does more than clown for the vets. Since last December, she’s been collecting music and movies for them. She and her husband are no longer accepting VHS tapes (“my husband said, ‘Enough, already'”), but they will take any DVDs, DVD players, or CDs and donate them either to Walter Reed or the the D.C. VA Medical Center. She keeps a big box on her front porch on Newark Street NW as a dropoff. Got media you’d like to pile in? E-mail Judy: jkopff[at]aol[dot]com. Maybe if you’re nice, she’ll make you a poodle.