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Baraboo’s Braun ‘embodied the soul of the circus,’ dies at 74

December 14, 2018

When Circus World Museum opened in 1959, Frank Braun was there, soaking up the sights, sounds and smells as a young teenager.

Excitement for the circus kept bringing him back. Then, he just stayed.

“He caught the elephant bug and the animal bug, and that was it. He was hooked,” said Harold “Heavy” Burdick, a close friend and head of facilities and restoration at Circus World.

Braun, a Baraboo man who spent almost his entire life on the museum’s grounds, died Sunday at 74. He was Circus World’s longest-tenured employee, returning even after retirement to volunteer, according to Executive Director Scott O’Donnell.

Throughout his career, Braun did everything at Circus World. O’Donnell described him as a “versatile circus guy,” who worked with animals “from the shovel to the nose” and helped Burdick in the workshop. Braun even walked around the expansive grounds with a trash picker tool, scouring the property for garbage and knick-knacks, as well as visitors with whom to share stories.

“He was really into the circus, and he helped train elephants,” said Burdick, who has worked at the museum for about 45 years. “He worked elephants; he worked ponies. I mean, he really had a gift.”

O’Donnell said Braun was mentored by well-known animal trainer John Herriott, who opened the door for Braun to work with animals. In a Facebook post Sunday, O’Donnell wrote that Braun “embodied the soul of the circus” with his passion, commitment and character.

“Elephants are an amazing judge of character,” O’Donnell said. “They’re really good at weeding out people … that they don’t feel are — are either compassionate or intelligent or both. And you know, they took to Frank.”

Around the 1960s, Braun became the caretaker for three elephants called Topsy, Toby and Eva. O’Donnell said Eva, in particular, followed Braun wherever he went and bellowed in excitement when she heard his voice or car approach.

“They were like a family unit,” O’Donnell said.

Braun often brought his human family to enjoy the circus, too. His daughter, Jenna Braun, and son, William Braun, both of Baraboo, volunteered at Circus World during their childhood, helping their father out with horses and ponies, Jenna said.

“We were there all the time with him,” she said. “We were basically brought up in the circus, so it was really fun.”

Jenna said her father is known throughout the Baraboo community for his generosity and his presence at Circus World. He was honest, loyal, hardworking and “just a lovable man,” who loved his family, the circus and the animals for which he cared, she said. He used to take Jenna fishing with him, an activity they loved to share together.

Braun had a penchant for finding good deals at swap meets and garage sales, O’Donnell said. Jenna said he also enjoyed attending the Badger Steam & Gas Engine Show to sell his “treasures,” as he called them, and going to the junkyard to sell more.

“He was a family-oriented man and a great friend with many others,” she said. “He’s just a great icon.”

O’Donnell echoed her sentiment, saying Braun was “one of the spirits” who make Circus World what it is.

“He’s sort of been synonymous for Circus World as long as there’s been a Circus World,” O’Donnell said. “He was in many ways an ambassador for Circus World. I mean, everybody knew Frank.”

They knew him as affable, friendly and a joke-teller, O’Donnell said.

“And he cussed real good, too,” Burdick added.

Together, Braun and Burdick were a comedy duo on par with the cantankerous Muppets Statler and Waldorf, O’Donnell said. They were like brothers, fighting in the morning but then enjoying beers together that night.

Circus World Performance Director Dave SaLoutos described a common scene at the museum’s workshop, where Burdick and his crew worked on wagons while Braun floated around the periphery, anticipating which tools Burdick would need and bringing them to him.

Braun knew where everything was, often helping others find things — or, as Burdick joked, Braun was good at putting things where others wouldn’t expect, thus making himself the resource they needed to find it.

While they could aggravate each other, Burdick spoke affectionately of Braun.

“There just ain’t no better than him,” he said.

Braun retired about 15 years ago, but never really left Circus World. Burdick said he still came to help out five days a week and even visited the week before he died. Jenna went with both of her parents this summer to enjoy the new acts under the big top.

According to Braun’s obituary, Circus World will host a celebration of his life this spring.

“This place meant a lot to him, and he meant a lot to us,” Burdick said. “He will be dearly missed.”

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