Joanne Hollinger, a volunteer clown who amused and delighted audiences from here to the White House for more than 25 years, died Saturday at the home of her nephew after losing her battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 70.
Her best known persona was that of "Petunia" the clown, who wore a flowered dress with an aqua-blue vest, a purple wig, a little straw hat and giant blue leather shoes. She frequently clowned for Children's Hospital and local charities benefiting veterans. She once clowned at the White House annual Easter Egg Roll under President George H.W. Bush.
"It was all volunteer," said her nephew, Rick Deverts of McCandless. "She never took a cent. She loved to clown."
Some of her regular performances included the annual Veterans Boat Ride on the Gateway Clipper and Rolling Thunder, a veterans group that advocates for prisoners of war and service members missing in action.
A lifelong resident of Pittsburgh, she worked various jobs. She was an administrative assistant for Prudential Insurance Co. for years and most recently worked as a school bus driver for special needs children, which she did until the end of the last school year.
While clowning was her greatest passion, those who knew her best were the people she came to know at Riverview Dog Park on the North Side, which she visited every evening with her 95-pound dog named Sir Walter. "She made incredible friends at Riverview Dog Park, who supported her tremendously," Mr. Deverts said.
Her friends at the dog park have collected more than 40 signatures on a petition they will present to Pittsburgh City Council asking that the dog park be renamed in her honor. The group of friends have already been granted permission to plant a tree there in her honor and place a park bench there with a memorial plaque mounted on the bench.
"Joanne was actually my first friend in Pittsburgh," said Katie Ridenour, a Brighton Heights resident who works in human resources at BNY Mellon, Downtown. "I met her three years ago when I moved here from Tennessee. I went to the dog park and the very first person to greet me was Joanne.
"She joked around with me about my accent. But that's how I knew she liked me. She was funny and welcoming and you just felt at home around her. I kept coming back because of Joanne. She became part of a new family for me because I have no family here and didn't know anyone at all."
Ms. Hollinger did not inform her friends at the dog park that she was sick until about two months ago. Many of them knew she was a cancer survivor. About 20 years ago, she had a double mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Still, she continued coming to the dog park every evening even though she was very sick some of those days.
Ms. Ridenour said as recently as two weeks ago, she insisted on performing as a clown at a charity event for special needs children. She was so weak she needed help getting dressed in her costume and someone had to drive her to the event.
"I believed she was going to make it because she told me her time was not done," Ms. Ridenour said. "She said she still had children she needed to cheer up as a clown."
Ms. Hollinger had no children and was never married. Her friends are planning a memorial service for her in Riverview Dog Park after the tree is planted and the memorial bench is set in place. Funeral arrangements are by T.B. Devlin Funeral Home.
Tim Grant: email@example.com or 412-263-1591.