|By Moira Blazi
When I asked Lloyd Wagner, now 84, what keeps him going, he sighed, smiled, took off his red clown nose, and said, “Every day is another day.”
Better known to just about everyone in Libby as, Willie B the Balloon Man, Wagner sat down for a short lunch break, completely at home and not self conscious about the curly green wig and the colorful clown jumpsuit he was wearing. It was one of many that his beloved, late wife, Judy had made for him over the years; 31 years of clowning together.
Wagner started out as a machinist at Boeing Aircraft, in Seattle, the only job and profession he held for 37 and a half years. He loved making things, and he was very good at it. Beginning as an apprentice, when he was just 18 years old, the farm kid from Nebraska took to the work, making parts for jet airliners. Although most of the thousands of pieces of these mechanical miracles are made by a myriad of outside contractors all over the world, Wagner told The Montanian that a few small, but important parts like the long rod that controls those wing flaps that go up on landing and the door stops were made in house, in Seattle. Precision was everything, as Wagner explained, “When the doors of the plane close, there has to be a perfectly smooth, aerodynamic surface every time, and they open and close thousands of times a year.”
Over the years at Boeing, Wagner tried management a few times but he didn’t like it. He always went back to what he loved to do, make things.
He also was active in the local Awana group in Bellevue. “I was a game director there, and Judy was a Cubby director (cub scout den mother).” The club was offering classes on in a wide variety of things and Judy thought the balloon making class sounded fun, and as Wagner put it, “ If you’re a mom there’s not much you don’t already know.”
Judy took the class, but had trouble tying off the balloons due to fibromyalgia. “She came home with a Ziplock bag full of balloons and told me, I took the class and you didn’t.” He added with a laugh, “I sat down and made all ten balloon shapes in the book that very night.” They were hooked. After that, Wagner says, every time the couple went out to eat he would just go around the tables making balloons for everyone, adults and kids alike, and since Judy couldn’t make the balloons, she made their costumes and, after awhile kept track of their growing number of appointments and appearances. “One of my biggest problems was remembering the time and place I had to go. I used to ask folks to call me and remind me the night before. Judy was my rememberer,” he said. Taking to his new hobby with the practiced eye of a master machinist, Wagner explained, “What you don’t do is most important, it’s the parts of the balloon that don’t get blown up that is the trick. Many of them are so similar, I tell people who want to learn to make ten of the same ones in a row and try to make them look the same. The older ladies tend to like the ladybug,” he continued, “Although I often try to convince them to take a flower, which is harder to accomplish, and if I get it right, with all the petals the same size I tell them to take a picture of it, because its hard to do,” he added with a grin.
Wager and his family moved to Libby 21 years ago. They had four children. “We started early, and they started early, and now I have 31 great-grandchildren,” he proudly told The Montanian. Wagner put together his own, after-retirement machine shop, and for years made custom parts for friends. Mostly, he says, old tractor parts and, “a lot of carburetor parts, things they just couldn’t buy.”
Never in it for the money, Wagner says that sometimes he gets paid and sometimes he doesn’t. “Sometimes I get tips, mostly from grandparents,” he added with a smile. “Occasionally, I have received checks from a business which I had to report to the IRS.” The balloons cost from 6 to15 cents each, and he buys them in batches of 3,000. “Sometimes in a busy year I will go through three batches, I just remind people of the gas I use and, they are almost always very, very generous.”
Wagner is quite aware of the state of the art in his field, and he worked with some of the very first 3-D printers. “I started on the first NC (Numerical Control) machine ever made, it was so bad, it just wasted a lot of time,” he recalled with a laugh.
Always fully engaged, and ready to make a child smile, the balloon man is going strong with a new sidekick Racheal Reynolds, who has been working with him for about four years.
As we finished up, Wagner was quick to remind me that he knows he has been hard to get in touch with and wants everyone to have his new phone number which is 291-9795. Give him a call for your next party or gathering and try to remember to remind him the night before.
Lloyd Wagner, age 84 smiles for the camera during last week’s interview. Photo by Moira Blazi, The Montanian.