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Circus Collector and Model Builder Howard Tibbals Has Died

Tibbals spent years perfecting the highly detailed circus model on display at The Ringling, and collected circus materials for decades.

By Kay Kipling March 21, 2022

Howard Tibbals in the Howard Bros. Circus Model at The Ringling in 2007.

Image: Jim Stem

Sarasota has lost one of its biggest contributors to the arts and history scene with the passing of Howard Tibbals, Sunday, March 20. Tibbals, 85, was a longtime philanthropist whose passion for the circus led to a lifetime devoted to collecting and preserving the history of that American entertainment institution, culminating in his Howard Bros. Circus Model, a centerpiece of the Ringling Circus Museum’s Tibbals Learning Center seen and enjoyed by thousands of visitors of all ages.

Tibbals, who died of natural causes at his Sarasota home, began work on the highly detailed model in 1956. And for more than 60 years, he devoted at least twenty hours a week to building pieces for the historically accurate ¾” scale model of the tented Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus of the early 20th century. The last wagon was added in April of 2021.

To ensure that accuracy, he collected materials documenting circus history. Assembled over decades, The Tibbals Circus Collection includes photographs, posters and other advertising materials, programs, scrapbooks, correspondence, design drawings, costumes, and props as well as more than 2,000 books related to the circus. This collection, now held at The Ringling, documents all aspects of the circus and allied arts such as Wild West, side show, and other travelling entertainments.

“Through his unique passion, vision, and leadership, Howard Tibbals was a key figure in the growth and transformation of The Ringling. His donations established the Circus Museum as the leading center for the preservation and research of the circus in America and his collections attract scholars and artists from around the world. The Howard Bros. Circus Model and the posters, photographs and other materials in the extraordinary Tibbals Circus Collection are Howard's great legacy and will continue to delight visitors and inspire new generations to learn about the circus in America. I join with our entire community in mourning the loss of this remarkable man,” said Steven High, executive director of The Ringling, in a press release announcing the passing.

“Howard's greatest gift was sharing his passion for circus history. An extraordinary mentor, Howard encouraged me to find my own interests in the subject and enjoyed sharing his knowledge in support of my efforts. He was generous in every way,” said Jennifer Lemmer Posey, Tibbals Curator of Circus.

In addition to his circus model and collection legacy, Tibbals is survived by his wife Janice and their children David Tibbals and wife Karen, Jeff Tibbals, Tim Tibbals and wife Dawn, Tracey Stansberry and husband Don, Glenda Gray and husband Chris, Barry Elkins and wife Stacey, Betsy Farrell and husband Peter, and Barsha Saliba, as well as 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by one daughter, Karen Reed.

A service will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 23, at the First Baptist Church of Sarasota, 1661 Main St. There will be a reception immediately after at The Rosemary, 411 N. Orange Avenue. Interment will take place Saturday, March 26, at Highland Memorial Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Memorial contributions can be made to First Baptist Church of Sarasota, Laurel Church of Christ in Knoxville, or The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

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