June 1, 2023
'Florida Icon' Howard C. Tibbals shares life lessons

Photo: Alex McKnight

Howard C. Tibbals

Florida Icon

'Florida Icon' Howard C. Tibbals shares life lessons

Philanthropist, benefactor of Ringling Circus Museum Tibbals Learning Center, Longboat Key; age 77

Art Levy | 6/27/2014

There are 6,000 circus posters in the archives at The Ringling. It is probably one of the largest collections of circus posters in existence. And I am still adding to it.

The circus interested me first because it moved. It was fluid. It didn’t have concrete foundations. I liked the fact that they built an organization of thousands — and they did it in such a way that it could be moved from one town to another.

When I graduated from college, my adviser told me I was entering into the toughest employment situation you’ll ever find — working for your father. He said you love your daddy and all that soft stuff, but when push comes to shove, he’s the boss. Even if you’re 40 years old, daddy’s still the boss if he hasn’t kicked the bucket or retired. So every time I got pissed with my situation, I’d take a drive. The longest one was 50 miles.

We couldn’t get the money we needed for the museum until we changed what we were going to call it from the Tibbals Circus Museum to the Tibbals Learning Center. That’s when we got the money from the Legislature. It’s just amazing what you can do with verbiage. That taught me a lesson: Be careful what you say in print.

I’ve been very interested in the circus since I was an itty-bitty fella. Mother’s baby book for me says I saw my first circus when I was 3.

I’ve driven people nuts with questions. You can tell when people get tired of you. But if you can ask questions without being a pain in the butt, you can learn a lot.

When I was kid, I’d sit in church and make sketches on the back of a piece of paper of circus wagons.

We made our company a success. It was called the Tibbals Flooring Co. We made wood floors. I had a lot of pride in the products we were making. We put the floors in Donald Trump’s building in New York City. I had a lot of pride in the woodworking machinery I designed and altered. There’s a lot of good commercial woodworking machines in this country, but if you want to change them to do special products and run real fast and all that sort of stuff, that was my specialty — taking existing machinery and adapting it to do more things than it was originally designed to do.

There was a lady here in town who was the premier Italian cook in the world. She just died. Marcella Hazan. We were very good friends with her. We miss her terribly. The first meal she ever made us was the best meal I ever had in my life. She made pasta. It was the thinnest pasta I’ve ever seen and softer than a paper page.

I started building my model of the Howard Brothers Circus in 1956, and I’m still not done. It turned out to be a lot more timeconsuming than I expected.

I don’t drink liquor of any form. No wine. Nothing. Never. I don’t smoke, either. I was always fearful I would do something wrong, so I tried very much to do things right. I still try to do the right thing.

When I first started working on the model, I learned I couldn’t just build a bunch of objects. I had to tell a story. My goal was to show what it was like when a traveling circus came to town.

I started collecting circus photographs a long time ago. I’d look at the old pictures, and I’d have a strong desire to copy what I was seeing. Name any circus wagon the Ringlings ever ran, and I’ll show you 20 or 30 photographs of it.

The circus played a major role in Sarasota’s development. The city should have a great circus museum, and it does.

I tried to teach my kids: Don’t do what granddaddy says. Don’t do what daddy says. Do what you say. You get out there and you find what you want to do. And if you find that you’ve failed, don’t get upset. Try again.

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