Don Rapp teaches life lessons with juggling in final week at Boys’ and Girls’ Club

Don Rapp shows kids how to juggle on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017 at the Boys' and Girls' Club. PAULA OSPINA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Boys’ and Girls’ Club honorary counselor Don Rapp loves seeing people interested in juggling.

“It tells me I’m not the only crazy person,” Rapp said with a laugh.

For 20 years, Rapp, 88, has come to Club to teach Groupers the art of juggling and provide life lessons along the way.

His passion for juggling started at the age of 12 after seeing a former vaudeville performer juggle on stage.

“I pointed at the juggler and said to myself, ‘I want that,’ ” Rapp said. “After the show my dad gave me three golf balls. I went up to my room, and within four days I could juggle.”

For more than 75 years, that little hobby carved out a niche for Rapp. While working as a professor of child development at Florida State University, he appeared on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” twice as Dr. Don Rapp the juggler. But work always got in the way of his leisurely pursuits.

Rapp didn’t discover Chautauqua Institution until 1990, when he and his wife Patsy visited on a whim while researching how to create a class on creativity.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, this is a well-kept secret,’ ” Rapp said.

After retiring in 1995, Rapp started teaching a Special Studies course on juggling at the Institution.

One of his students happened to be the son of former Director of Recreation and Youth Services Jack Voelker, who still served in that position at the time.

Girls from the Boys’ and Girls’ Club learn how to juggle from Don Rapp on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017. PAULA OSPINA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“Jack wanted to meet me because he heard good things from his son Jake,” Rapp said. “He said, ‘If you can get up here for a whole summer, we’ll talk about a job here.’ ”

Two years later, Voelker hired Rapp as a juggling instructor for Club.

Rapp sees this as a teachable moment for people.

“Jack didn’t know I existed until I showed off my skills,” Rapp said. “You’ve got to be public with your talent. If they don’t see you, they won’t know you exist and what you can bring to the table.”

For 19 years, Rapp taught juggling for 10 hours a week in the field next to Beeson Youth Center. Last year, Rapp retired from Club because he needed to care for a family member. However, he had the itch to come back for at least one more week to make his service an even 20 years.

His week started at Children’s School on July 31.      

Though most of his time over the past 20 years was spent with the boys and girls of Club, Rapp wanted to perform for the youngest Chautauquans as well.

Rapp delighted the kids with his juggling and his almost magical one-handed knot tying.

It wasn’t just the kids who were entertained. In fact, at least five teachers in the 5- and 6-year-old classrooms at Children’s School had juggling lessons with Rapp when they were at Club themselves.

“I grew up in Club and he still knows who I am,” said Group 1 head teacher Shannon Keane.

Keane said she remembers hearing Rapp’s “This is the House that Jack Built” for the first time when she was in Group 1, spending half the day at Children’s School and the other half down the hill at Club.

“It amused me when I was 6 in Group 1, and it still amused me when I was in SAC as a high schooler,” she said. 

For the most part, Rapp’s performance July 31 was flawless. But even a man who’s been juggling for over three quarters of a century is allowed to make mistakes.

During a trick where he bounces a juggled ball off of his knee, one of the balls fell to the ground, drawing tiny gasps and laughter from his audience.

“I gotta tell you, that was a mistake; I didn’t mean to drop that ball,” Rapp said. “Well, I made a mistake, so I’m going to try it again to see if I can do it right.”

Even in the simplest of mistakes, Rapp found the chance to teach a lesson.

After his time at Children’s School, Rapp visited Club Aug. 3 to teach girls in Group 3 and Group 6.

With the Group 3 girls, Rapp knew jumping right into juggling wouldn’t work. According to Rapp, most kids don’t have a mature enough brain to juggle until the age of 10. Instead, Rapp introduced what he called “pre-juggling,” a series of exercises that prepares kids to learn juggling. 

The exercises included blind ball catching, walking while tossing the ball to both hands and other movements to simulate juggling.

Aug. 4 was Rapp’s last day at Chautauqua; he planned to have parents visit so he could thank them for having great kids.

But the weather had other plans. Severe thunderstorms descended upon the Girls’ Club, with strong wind and scattered downpours, hurting the attendance for his ode to Clubber parents.

Despite the inclement weather, 25 people — made up of Club directors, counselors and former Clubbers — arrived to see Rapp off.

“This is better than what I wanted,” Rapp said. “I’d rather say goodbye to the kids and people whose lives I hopefully touched.”

Rapp thanked the audience for letting him do what he loves, and for being great people.

After demonstrating some juggling, Rapp gave a pre-juggling lesson to the audience. As the exercise ended, Rapp thanked everyone one last time. Some of the Club counselors hugged Rapp with tears in their eyes, potentially seeing him for the last time. 

Rapp said he knew some of the counselors back when they were 7-year-old Clubbers. Those same counselors, now between the ages of 16 and 20, reminded Rapp how much has changed over his 20-year tenure.

Rapp hopes that he’s inspired them to carry on juggling at Chautauqua.

“I want to know how long juggling will stay a part of Club without me there,” Rapp said. “ You’ve just got to empower the kids to do it.”

Rapp isn’t completely sure, but he thinks it may be his final time coming to Chautauqua.   

Walking out of the Girls’ Club, a tear fell down his cheek.

“This may be the last time I walk out of here.” Rapp said. “What a ride.”

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