Both had a love for the real, the genuine, the authentic.

Both embraced creativity like a child, and pursued it boldly.

And as unlikely as their paths were to ultimately cross, you would never doubt they were meant to.

David Ivor Balding. If you knew him at all, you’d say, “Ivor? Of course his name is Ivor!” He was the very embodiment of “circus” as we most want to imagine it: big, brave, mysterious, otherworldly; from a universe where magic exists, brought to us by characters special enough to live with one foot in that universe and another in this one.

A native New Yorker, his was a life rich with variety, of the impresario kind. Producing shows from Parisian circuses to Pinter plays, all along harboring a wish that other, ordinary people would have outgrown by that stage of life. He wanted, one day, to have his own elephant.

Meanwhile, far, far away, a younger man was getting started in the business world, out in the American midwest. I say “business” because as a photographer, he served the marketing world. Scott Raffe photographed CEO’s for annual reports. He shot products for marketing. He called on companies and their advertising agencies. Eventually, he moved to St. Louis, where his pursuit of projects for banks, manufacturers and service providers continued. It was here that he met David Ivor Balding.

David Balding himself was contagious. If you carried the recessive gene for Obsessive Fascination — which in 21st century America we tend to suppress — David awakened it. The result was often unbridled awe for the exotic, a tendency towards creative risk, respect for the clown as much as the client, and the Big Top as much as the Boardroom.

In David, Scott had stumbled onto the world his camera had been looking for, whether he knew it at that time or not. Through David, and David’s very own elephant, Flora, along with the beloved family circus performers who made up his one-ring circus, Scott’s lens found the big, important things. The capital-letter subjects that have been around forever, but, at times, seem unlikely to last forever: Craft, long practiced and taught, carried down through generations; Wonder, made of such humble ingredients as grease paint, popcorn and sawdust floors; and Family, so close, that fathers, grandfathers, nieces and nephews lived, worked and performed together, well past the time it takes for the child who on stage plays the child, to begin playing the father. 

And Scott found children who never dreamed of running away with the circus, because they were already there. 

David and Scott weren’t formally partners. They were simply artists, and each respected the work of the other. They had an unofficial understanding that whatever David and his circus dreamed up, Scott would have access to shoot. And in exchange, Scott would record David’s dreams through photography that was as human, revealing, and yet as respectful, as David’s work itself.

The collaboration lasted many years. Whenever David needed images for advertising, promotion or press, Scott was there with literally thousands of photographs, all at no charge. My advertising agency, Rodgers Townsend, utilized Scott’s work for Circus Flora advertising. Scott not only made the circus look good, he made Rodgers Townsend look good.

Having first met each independently, I initially knew David as a client, and Scott as an advertising photographer. Over time I became friends with each.

Once, David and his wonderful wife Laura opened their farm to me so I could produce a commercial there for a global relief organization, Outreach International. Both were there with us all day, and never asked for a penny. 

After Scott moved to Oklahoma, he self-published a large, elegant coffee table book of all his photos made around that state. He wasn’t sure if he would make his money back. He gave one to me.

While I knew how much they worked together, I also knew Scott had many other clients, and was living in Oklahoma. I knew that David’s shows went on and on, around the country, whether Scott was in town or not. So they were still separate artists in my mind, who overlapped once a year, when the circus came to town.

That is, until my oldest son suddenly died, in an automobile accident. He was 21.

Although Alex grew up going to Circus Flora, neither David nor Scott really knew him. And I didn’t see David or Scott that often, so I hadn’t thought to reach out to either of them and tell them the news.

A few weeks after Alex’s service, I was back at the office. Out of the blue, I got a call. It was David.

“Tom, Scott Raffe’s in town. The two of us want to take you to lunch.” They suggested Duff’s. I arrived, and there they were, waiting at a table, watching the door. They stood and embraced me in such a way that words were hardly necessary. We spent a personal hour or two together, not as client, photographer, and ad man. But as David, Scott and Tom.

One year later, Scott was taken by pancreatic cancer. Now, three years after that, David has passed from complications resulting from a fall. And now I can never return the favor they gave me that day.

A writer named Todd Mitchell was working at Rodgers Townsend when he wrote a headline for Circus Flora. Years later, after David and I were no longer working together, he told me it was his favorite line. Today, it occurs to me why.

We thought it was about Circus Flora.

He always knew it was about David Balding.

He understood that it was about everyone who knew him, loved him, and believed in what he believed in.

Today, I find more truth in Todd’s line than ever before.

Maybe as much as David Ivor Balding once did.

“Childhood ends. But circus is forever.”

— Tom Townsend

3 thoughts on “

  1. Tom, this month will mark 1 year since my brother’s death. And this Friday I am taking my daughters to Circus Flora for the first time. It will be even more meaningful now after having read this. Thank you.

    • Hey Amy — Sorry I didn’t respond back when you posted this! I’m trying to keep up with too many things. But I hope your Dad and your family are getting along okay. It doesn’t ever get much better really, does it? We just get better at coping I think. Thanks again, and always keep in touch.


  2. As usual, a poetic and moving post. What a lovely tribute to two fellow humans with great big generous hearts. While you might not be able to “return the favor” you can (and do) every time you pass it forward, much as you do to celebrate Alex’s all too short, but none-the-less meaningful life.

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