- Associated Press - Sunday, December 21, 2014

WIMBERLEY, Texas (AP) - As a child in the 1940s, Lee Epstein had polio and spent a year in a hospital two hours away from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. From feeling lonely when he was in the hospital to being excluded from playground games when he was released, the disease’s psychological impacts were almost as bad the physical ones, he said.

So Epstein, now 80, found a way to compensate: “I started to develop humor and jokes.”

The experience, he said, made him a jokester and a storyteller for his entire life and a natural fit for a passion he discovered much later in life: clowning.

After a career in computer science, Epstein moved to the Wimberley area in the mid-1990s and “Eppy the Hill Country Clown” became a fixture at community events, although he rarely profited for his hours spent putting smiles on kids’ faces. Now the town is trying to return the favor to Epstein, who is suffering from post-polio syndrome and is having financial troubles as he tries to move back to the East Coast to be with his family.

So a group of Wimberley residents organized a benefit concert for Epstein and his wife, Sandi, at the VFW Hall. The lineup included Butch Hancock, Jimmy Dale Gilmore and other notable local musicians who know Epstein through his other passion: playing harmonica.

James Ash, who helped organize the event, told the Austin American-Statesman (https://bit.ly/1xrapYv) that Epstein’s generosity and loquaciousness - he’s known for his long and engaging stories - make him stand out in a town full of interesting people.

“Everybody in town is friends with him. He’s a local celebrity hero,” Ash said. “Wimberley has a lot of character and a lot of characters.”

Born in Manhattan in 1934, Hillel Leon Epstein grew up in Brooklyn, became a computer-science consultant and worked for IBM for 23 years in New York. He started his own firm and moved to Florida in 1990.

In 1992, his wife signed up for “clown school” in Clearwater, Fla., but later realized she couldn’t make the classes. Epstein took her place and dove headfirst into learning the technical side of clowning - makeup, tricks and acting - as well as “the philosophy of clowning,” he said.

“You say things and you do things that people don’t expect - never to hurt, never to embarrass,” he said. “Always make fun with, never at.”

He chose to follow the “tramp clown” archetype and loosely based his outfit on Emmett Kelly’s Depression-era “Weary Willy” character. Recreating Eppy during an interview last week, Epstein opened his eyes wide, slouched forward and waved timidly by sheepish rippling his fingers. After the shy act would get a child’s attention, he said, he would open up, tell jokes and do magic tricks. Balloon animals are his specialty.

Soon after he turned 60, Epstein and his wife moved to a house in the Hill Country Ranches neighborhood outside Wimberley, which they discovered whilevisiting a relative.

Epstein, who started playing harmonica when he was 12, joined a bluegrass circle and befriended many of the musicians wh0 call the town home. Eppy, meanwhile, became a Wimberley institution, appearing regularly at the Lions Club’s monthly Market Days, at the Wimberley Rodeo, at events at the EmilyAnn Theatre & Gardens and other community gatherings.

Five years ago, he was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, which can cause muscular atrophy and trouble breathing. Epstein retired the Eppy character a few years ago, but he still clowns occasionally and plays the harmonica. His condition worsened recently, and Epstein spent three weeks in the hospital last month after suffering a heart attack. He now eats only through a tube to his stomach, an obstacle he has taken with characteristic optimism.

“I’ve had 80 years of eating great food,” Epstein said. “I still cook lamb chops for (Sandi). It doesn’t affect me in the least.”

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Information from: Austin American-Statesman, https://www.statesman.com


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