Talk about irony: You send your children to a good college, and the experience persuades them to…run away and join the circus? Just that has happened again and again at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, thanks to LaVahn Hoh. Using red rubber noses as props, circus visits as field trips and his childhood memories as lecture material, Hoh, 56, teaches the nation’s only accredited college course on the history of the Big Top. His enthusiasm is as irresistible as roasted peanuts. “My mother was aghast,” says former student Leigh Marshall, 33, who worked as a circus clown for a year after graduation.
“The circus is an important form of popular culture,” maintains Bob Chapel, chair of UVa’s drama department. Students jump through hoops to get into Hoh’s class, offered since 1982, because he has “such passion and love for what he’s teaching,” says math major Gina Coleto.
In fact, Hoh, who holds a master of fine arts degree, celebrated his 1989 honeymoon with second wife Mary-Frances, 58, riding a circus train from Baraboo, Wis., across the state to Janesville. Even their house is garnished in—yup—circus decor. When Hoh once darted over to meet another circus train stopped near his classroom, his students “stood waving goodbye,” he recalls. “They thought I was running away.”
Despite his insider status—”some of my closest friends are clowns,” he ‘ quips—Hoh doesn’t plan to turn pro. For one thing, it’s dangerous: After getting pied in the face by a bunch of clowns in 1994, Hoh laughed so hard he gave himself a hernia. Still, says daughter Jennifer Lynn Hoh, 32, if her dad ever retires, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he sold everything and followed the circus.”