Tears for an Icon

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J. P. (short for Julius Pierpoint) Patches left us Sunday morning. The clown — real name Chris Wedes — was a hero to children of all ages, but especially to baby boomers who grew up watching the KIRO-TV children’s star from 1958 through 1981.  J. P. styled himself “mayor of the city dump.”

J.P. starred in the longest running locally produced children’s TV program in the nation.  Twice daily he hosted the unscripted Emmy-award-winning – before and after school. He was helped along by his equally talented sidekick Bob Newman, who played Gertrude, J.P.’s girlfriend, and the show’s other human characters including Ketchikan the Animal Man and Boris S. Wort, the second meanest man in the world.

It was something of a tragedy for J.P. fans, young and old, when he went off the air in 1981. But happily, J. P. and Gertrude continued to make appearances at fairs and festivals. The pair often appeared at Children’s Hospital to visit sick kids. I remember catching J. P. at the West Seattle Hi-Yu Parade some years ago, waving to his many fans. Another time, he shook hands at the Museum of History & Industry as part of a stunt to find a stand-in for Gertrude.

Wedes and Newman were together in 2008 for the dedication of a bronze statue in Fremont. Titled “Late for the Interurban,” the statue shows J. P. and Gertrude rushing in opposite directions. The unveiling was attended by hundreds of Patches Pals including Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, Congressman Jim McDermott and members of the King County and Seattle City Council. The highlight of the event occurred when several hundred spectators turned their backs long enough to emerge wearing bright red clown noses.

But, weakened by treatment for multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, Wedes last applied his white-faced clown makeup – broad grin and round red nose — in December when he took part in a fundraiser for KCTS-TV.  He said it was his last performance, although he joked he might pull “a Frank Sinatra” and keep making additional appearances.

At the KCTS event, Northwest funny man Pat Cashman presented the entertainer with a framed certificate announcing that Seattle’s new North Transfer Station’s education center will be named for him. It’s not the same as presiding over “the city dump,” since transfer stations are no longer thought of as dumps,  but naming the education center for J. P. Patches will give a new generation a chance to become “Patches’ Pals” and learn such homey admonitions as “mind mommy and daddy” and “share your toys.”

I last talked with J. P. in May and asked if he could attend the opening of the South Transfer Station, a state-of-the-art facility in South Park. Unfortunately, he had to tell me that he was still recovering from the latest round of treatments for his cancer and didn’t think he be able to attend. However, his wife, Joan Wedes, graciously agreed to attend along with a giant blow-up picture of J. P.

J.P.’s Education Center, planned for the North Transfer Station, is exactly the right approach to memorializing a larger-than-life personality and a genuine hero. For those of us born in the earlier TV years, J. P. has made an important difference. We will always hold him dear. We will always remember the ICU2-TV, a box through which J.P. could look back at us and check to make sure we were following the rules.  For the J. P. Generation, he will always be mayor of the City Dump – oops, make that the transfer station.