Have a little Sisu: Sisu the Clown was educational and informational
Determined to bring light-hearted care to his community, Sandy Mattila took on the name “Sisu” and started clowning around. For more than 30 years from 1983 to his death in 2016, Sisu the Clown brought an irrepressible humor to the Copper Country and beyond.
Before he was Sisu, Mattila was a Korean War veteran, a member of the Operating Engineers Local 324 and a Seabee with the U.S. Navy Reserves. In 1983, Mattila watched a clown comfort a child during a hospital visit and was inspired to create his own clown persona, which he named after the Finnish word for determination.
Mattila made a very determined clown, too.
“Sometimes he’d come by and say ‘Hey, when can I see the kids?'” said Kim Harris, the principal of South Range Elementary School. “He actually put himself out there, it wasn’t like I had to go asking.”
He partnered with a monkey puppet named STUP whose name stood for the four most important words in the English language, according to Sisu–Sorry, Thank You and Please. One girl who saw him in school in 1988 wrote to “Mr. Mattila” to thank him.
“My mom asked me if I was sick because I was acting so nice,” she wrote.
Sisu had impact with children, and the feeling was mutual. In fact, his daughter, Pam Gettig, still has three large binders full of news articles, photos and thank you letters that Mattila saved through the years.
Mattila favored performing for the the young and the old most of all. Good manners weren’t the only thing he would teach young kids. He also carried a message against substance abuse to elementary schools and scouting troops. When he visited veterans associations and nursing homes, he would do his performance in Finnish for those who could speak it, and danced in a traditional Finnish style with STUP.
Traveling to visit family or with the Navy Reserves, he performed as Sisu in places as far away as Alaska, California, Florida, Hawaii, Canada and even Finland itself.
“His message on substance abuse fit perfectly into the curriculum and touched the child in all of us,” wrote the program director for an association for adults with disabilities in Florida he performed at in the 1990s.
The beginning of Mattila’s clowning act was often the transformation process of how he became a clown by wearing different clothes and applying makeup. Harris recalls him doing this because a student had a fear of clowns and other costumed characters.
“He wanted to be inspiring and positive to the students,” Harris said.
Sisu had a big year in 1990. On Easter, he went to the White House to be part of the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn after years of determined requests to be invited. At the beginning of May, he was acknowledged by Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 643 of the Michigan state congress for “his exceptional contribution to the community.” His hometown of South Range had ‘Sisu the Clown Day,’ which included a mini-parade honoring his work in the community and several presentations.
In 1994, Mattila was part of a delegation sent to Hancock’s sister city in Finland, Porvoo. He went with old-timer hockey players and the mayor of Hancock, but Sisu the Clown stole the show with performances at schools and the senior center. He performed his act in a mixture of Finnish and English.
“Sisu was certainly highlight of a very friendly visit from Hancock; something which will stay with us — all pupils and teachers, and be remembered with love and gratitude,” wrote the principal of a school he visited in a letter the the editor.
“I’m very proud of Sandy-the man and Sisu-the clown,” wrote then-mayor of Hancock Mary Tuisku in a thank you note.
All of these performances were done on a volunteer basis.
“I do this because I want to do it, I don’t want to charge for it,” Mattila said in a 1990 issue of the Navy Times.
Even toward the end of his life, Mattila continued to spread joy. In 2014, Mattila was a resident in Woodland Haven, the Alzheimer’s ward at Houghton County Medical. He was allowed to keep his costume and would sometimes “be Sisu” around the ward. Gettig and his wife, Pat, came to pick him up for an appointment at the funeral home around the corner.
“We walked in and Dad was dressed up as Sisu,” Gettig said.
He wasn’t wearing the makeup, but had everything else on. His wife was embarrassed, but Gettig was determined to make the appointment on time and took him there dressed as Sisu.
When they left the funeral home, Mattila waved cheerily at people as they slowed their vehicles to see the clown on the side of the road in his own little parade. Gettig says the funeral director stepped outside and shouted, “You go, Sisu!”