Ladies and gentlemen, step right up – and prepare to be amazed by the extraordinary life of Isai Leon, a patrol officer at the Abilene Police Department who’s not clowning around.
That’s more of his dad’s former business, though Isai has himself also donned face paint in pursuit of a good cause. The last time he did so was during his freshman year of college at Abilene Christian University for a carnival-style event.
Leon, who also trained on the trapeze when he was younger, loves to reflect on his family’s lengthy legacy in the circus industry while serving Abilene residents with solid police work.
Worlds of Wonder
Born in California, he spent two years in Mexico City.
His family returned to the United States to join one of the largest circuses on the East Coast, the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus.
Isai's stepdad, Manuel, was a prominent circus clown, skilled in juggling, magic, balancing acts and more, and served as the attraction’s “Boss Clown.”
For roughly the next half of his life, Isai traveled with his parents nine months out of the year. Starting in central Florida, the show would journey all the way up to Maine. The three-ring spectacle would put on multiple performances daily, staying at each location for two or three days.
Some circuses travel via train, while some, like the one his father performed in, travel in large fleets, Leon said.
“We had trailers, semis, and everything,” he recalled.
Isai grew up making friends with trapeze artists from Russia, clowns from Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil, and daredevils who got shot out of a rocket from Ukraine. Each new day was a wonderland, and he recalled the special feeling of waking up each morning to explore the circus grounds.
“Sometimes, we were in little fairgrounds like a carnival would use,” he said. “When we were in New York, we could see the Statue of Liberty from where we were at. It was just really fun waking up and seeing new places. Everyone was like family, so we had free range of the whole circus grounds – even as little kids – doing whatever we wanted to.”
The children who traveled with the circus were homeschooled, and Isai's mother, Isabel, taught many people who only spoke Spanish how to speak English. Spanish is his first language, he said.
“I still keep in contact with a lot of (those people), especially the kids that were my age,” he said.
It was a “good time,” Isai said, the frenetic pace and the showmanship of the Big Top showmanship becoming part of daily life.
“It was the most fun childhood I could have ever had,” he said.
Learning from the best
Isai’s father had the job of helping to set up and plan acts, including prop-building. His dad easily handled juggling, magic tricks, and balancing acts requiring intense precision.
“He’d start off balancing a little stick with a revolving disc on top of his chin,” Isai recalled. “That would change to a chair that folds up, and then that would change to a bicycle and then a 12-foot ladder. He’d just add more and more things.”
But what impressed Isai most about his father’s abilities was not his professional skills but his easy ability to make friends, including with those from other circuses. It helped him learn a lot about connecting with people and the human experience.
His dad now works as a circus agent, but he kept clowning after leaving the circus, taking on the role of Ronald McDonald in Texas appearances on behalf of the McDonald’s corporation and portraying his own clown character, “Giogio.”
“We moved to the (Dallas-Fort Worth) metroplex when he got that job as Ronald McDonald,” Isai remembered. “Every weekend from middle school until I graduated high school, as a family we'd go to Make-A-Wish Foundation events, to hospitals, quinceaneras, a lot of events for the Spanish-American communities, birthday parties, you name it.”
Having a clown at a party is a touchstone of Latin-American culture, he said.
“You have to have one – it’s like having mariachis and the taco vendor,” he quipped.
And – no joke – doing his own stint in clowning on his own helped him become who he is today.
“I used to be really shy as a kid, but I learned how to go into a setting and then just be open and be talking,” he said. “And now I'm able to talk really well with people, I can communicate well with people. When I was in college, I was a tour guide, and a lot of who I am today is because of that upbringing that I had.”
Finding Police Work
Isai, 28, has worked for the APD for four years. He was attracted to the idea of a police career after coming to Abilene Christian University, where he majored in political science.
An internship with the Abilene Police Department changed the trajectory of his life.
“I did 80 hours of ride-alongs with officers in the police department, met a lot of really cool people and got a feeling for what the job is like,” he said.
When he graduated, he followed his new calling.
While the department has seen many changes through recent years, it’s also seen growth and positive transformations, he said.
“Everyone’s moving together in the right direction,” he said. “We all have the same goal at the end of the day, to serve the citizens in our best capacity.”
One of the best changes for him recently? Working a day shift.
“I’m starting to get a tan,” he said. “I was looking pretty white after working nights for the past three years.”
He likes that no two days are the same at the APD, and every call is unique. Some can be as simple as a minor car crash or helping a stranded motorist, while others can involve chasing down a suspect on foot and tackling them.
“I can definitely see the difference that I and other officers have made in people’s lives on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “I just feel like I’m doing something good at the end of the day, every day.”
From Fear to Friends
There’s a bit of irony in Isai’s upbringing.
“When I was young, I was afraid of clowns,” he admitted with a laugh – potentially troublesome when that’s your family business.
But circus culture is the ultimate melting pot, he said, something that helped him learn to communicate with people from different walks of life.
“Now, looking back, I still love meeting and talking to people from different cultures,” he said, including contacts he’s made in Abilene with the Hispanic, South American, and Haitian communities as a uniformed officer.
Clowns have much to teach us, he said.
“Clowns can come in and present that opportunity for everyone to just let loose, just have fun,” he said. “The whole point and purpose is fostering community, everyone sharing a common experience and just laughing.”
His journey from the circus to law enforcement is a testament to how unique experiences can shape individuals and their ability to make a positive impact on their communities. And, it’s a reminder that sometimes, the most unconventional backgrounds prepare individuals for exceptional roles.
At the end of a performance, a common benediction in the circus world is: “May all your days be circus days,” Isai said.
Now, he said, he can look back and realize just how profound that seemingly simple statement was.
“All my days were circus days,” he said.
And the show is not yet over.