By Erin Jennings
Between road rage and gridlock (not to mention fear of missing the ferry), commuting to work isn’t usually cause for celebration. But thanks to Jerry Brader, motorists on Bainbridge Island are often treated to colorful balloons decorating the bus stop at the intersection of Highway 305 and Sportsman’s Club Road. He adorns the stop’s metal pole for no reason other than to celebrate life. “If you can make someone smile, that’s honorable,” said the 57-year-old Bainbridge Island resident.
But the twist in this story is that Brader has been legally blind since 1999. His limited eyesight allows him to make out silhouettes, but he can’t see the faces of passing motorists appreciating his jubilant display. And those balloons he so effortlessly inflates? Not only can he inflate them in a single breath, he often fills up two at a time—rather remarkable considering Brader had open-heart surgery three years ago. The thin, narrow pieces of rubber are deceitfully difficult to inflate. Brader said he has witnessed adults pass out from trying to blow up a single balloon.
A licensed massage therapist, Brader also has performed as “Majick the Clown” at Pike Place Market for more than 20 years. Because he can’t drive, he often relies on Kitsap Transit to get him to and from the ferry. Waiting for the bus one day, he began tying broken balloon scraps to the pole. (No need to worry: he only uses environmentally friendly balloons that are biodegradable.) He continued decorating with the scraps until one day it dawned on him that inflated balloons would make a bolder statement.
Highway drivers have enjoyed Brader’s handiwork since 1995. Sometimes he decorates in a theme—like red and white stripes for a candy cane pole during the Christmas season. But most often he uses a random assortment of colors. The result is a vibrant tower that provides a pop of color on our notorious gray days. (The balloons last much longer in cold, wet weather. The sun is a balloon’s enemy.)
Brader’s whimsical creativity didn’t stop there. Inspired by Lady Bird Johnson’s mission to spruce up America’s roadways with flowers, Brader paid homage to the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 when he planted flower bulbs on the hillside behind the bus stop. When in bloom, the daffodils grow into eight-foot tall letters that spell “LOVE.” His random act of kindness inspired another random act.
“The year I had my big surgery, we were driving by and someone was weeding the flowers for me,” Brader said. “The island is full of little elves.”
Brader considers himself an elf as well, and sees it as his mission to remind people to find the joy in life. He credits his heart operation with saving his life. Without it, he doubts he would still be alive.
“There is not one moment to be wasted,” Brader said. “Life is worth living and each moment is magical. I can’t imagine living life any other way.”