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The Dash Between: Marilyn Exline lived to help others smile

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Marilyn Exline’s alter ego, Miss Happy the Clown, gave demonstrations in the art of balloon inflation to youngsters in the 1970s.

The Grafton resident, who died Nov. 2 at age 69, followed the old-fashioned directive adopted by most clowns. Press a balloon to your painted oversized lips, and blow.

Her rainbow-colored, flower-bedecked costume, curly wig and ruffled fairy-tale pinner cap identified Miss Happy as a friendly, approachable clown, who wouldn’t do anything to frighten kids.

Amusing them by startling herself was another matter.

Scroll down for more photos.

“Whenever Miss Happy was blowing up balloons and one popped, she would jump back and make kids laugh,” said her daughter, Heidi.

Marilyn joined Clowns of America International to learn more about the clown code of conduct, props utilization and surefire ways to make ’em laugh.

She and her husband, Jim, a.k.a. Clancy the Clown, belonged to the Ely Clowns, a local group formed around 1975 by members of the social arm of the Independent Order of Foresters.

The Dash Between: About this feature
The dates of birth and death that appear like bookends on a tombstone do not matter as much as the dash between those dates: The life that a person lived.

The Dash Between is an obituary feature written by Alana Baranick about regular folks from Lorain County and adjacent areas. Baranick wrote her first obit in 1985 when she was a reporter for The Chronicle. She wrote obituaries for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer from 1992 through 2008.

She is the chief author of “Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers” and director of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. She won the 2005 American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award in the Obituary category.

Today, Baranick examines the dash between Sept. 13, 1940, when Marilyn Exline was born in Cleveland, and Nov. 2, 2009, when the outspoken Grafton woman, animal lover, one-time clown died.

The Dash Between is scheduled to appear in The Chronicle every other Sunday.

To suggest a story or make a comment, contact Baranick at abaranick@chroniclet.com.

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The group clowned around at parades, parties and community festivals. Miss Happy and company also showed up at The Chronicle offices in Elyria during the winter holiday season to help promote toy donations for the paper’s annual Not-Forgotten Box.

“You could tell she was having a ball,” said fellow clown Norm Hergina.

Miss Happy took an early retirement from clowning due to a personal tragedy. She last per-formed on Aug. 27, 1978, when her 16-year-old son, Eric, drowned at a company picnic where the clowns were entertaining.

“She lost her boy,” Hergina said. “That took the wind out of her sails.”

Marilyn, whose maiden name was Ayster, was born Sept. 13, 1940, in Cleveland. Her mother worked as a telephone company operator. Her father, a Navy veteran, worked for the Cleveland Illuminating Co.

Her only sister, Sue, who died in 2005, was nearly seven years her junior.

“Sue was a daddy’s girl, and Mom was a mommy’s girl,” Marilyn’s daughter said.

Marilyn grew up in Gates Mills. She learned ladylike etiquette and studied art at the Andrews School for Girls in Willoughby.

Soon after graduating in 1959, she married Raymond N. Hufford. The couple lived in California and had three children — Joy, Heidi and Eric — before the marriage ended in divorce.

Marilyn ended up in Elyria and took a job with Bendix Corp.

The mother of three met Jim Exline, the father of one, at a meeting of Parents Without Partners in 1973.

“Dad was very shy, wearing a black suit,” daughter Heidi said. “Mom was nervous about meeting him. Her mom had told her to watch out for the quiet ones in black suits.”

They were engaged by Christmas that year and married on March 23, 1974. Jim adopted Marilyn’s kids.

Together, they did the clown thing, shared a love of animals and started a home business called Hang-Ups by Exline that showed off their creative talents.

They made coat trees, rocking chairs, toy chests and wall hangings. Jim did the wood carving and construction. Although Marilyn had put away her greasepaint, she wielded a paintbrush and used acrylic paints like a master. She painted Jim’s naked creations with images of super-heroes, Sesame Street characters and classic cars.

“On the Friday before she went to the hospital, she delivered her last order,” the Rev. Catherine Wright, pastor of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Elyria, said at a memorial service for Marilyn last week. “She left no orders unfilled.”

Marilyn also devoted time to helping people and animals.

“When my dad died 10 years ago, she took my mom under her wing,” said Karyn Johnson of Elyria. “She cooked soup and brought it over.”

She took Johnson’s octogenarian mother to dinner theater productions, monthly club meetings and other events.

As a member of the Erie Shores Humane Society, Animals Disaster Team of Lorain County and Animal Rescue Corps, Marilyn rescued pets without homes and tried to find temporary shelter for animals whose families had to evacuate due to such disasters as chemical spills, tornados or house fires.

She also effectively rescued Dennis Borowski, a troubled youth who was placed in her home as a foster child around 30 years ago. They stayed in contact over the years.

“They are pretty much my family,” Borowski said.

Yet for all her do-gooding, friends worried that her outspokenness and rigid stances on various political, religious and social issues might alienate people with opposing views.

“I told her she shouldn’t be so opinionated,” Karyn Johnson said. “Once she got her mind set on something, that was it.”

Marilyn also was unyielding when seeking solutions to problems or petitioning government, law enforcement or other agencies on behalf of her latest cause.

“The word is tenacious,” Borowski said. “She gets on that computer and nag, nag, nags until she gets what she wants.”

Ultimately, even with annoying behavior, Marilyn aimed to make people happy.

“She always had a smile,” Borowski said, “and she wanted to help other people smile.”

Contact Alana Baranick at (216) 862-2617 or abaranick@chroniclet.com.

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