The Balloon Man
Nick Bettinger spends his free time twisting ‘sculptures’ and delivering smiles
Published in 2017 Texas Super Lawyers magazine on September 5, 2017
As an attorney, Nick Bettinger gets roughly $400 per hour. As a balloon man, it’s slightly better: “50 smiles an hour,” he says.
The Fort Worth attorney twists, squeezes and ties his way to every one of those smiles. He’s created balloon sculptures of everything from a 4-foot, flag-waving panda to an American bald eagle with wings that span 6 feet to a car for his daughter, Lauren, on her 16th birthday.
Bettinger, who practices personal injury defense law, started his hobby almost a decade and a half ago, when he wanted to put a smile back on his own face.
“Litigation is adversarial—and it can be badly adversarial sometimes,” he says. “I’ll never forget [one day], I was just staring at my wall. I was looking at my clock and I was having this, just, tooth-and-nail fight with another lawyer on the phone; and I hung up the phone and I thought, ‘Nobody smiles in this occupation.’”
That wasn’t the way he thought it should be.
Bettinger had wanted to be a lawyer since he heard the profession existed—at the age of 5, playing The Game of Life with his mother.
“I’ll never forget spinning that wheel and hitting the lawyer,” he says. “I didn’t know what a lawyer did, and I asked my mom and she said, ‘They help people.’ And I said, ‘You know what? That’s what I’m going to do, Mom.’”
After he got his J.D. at Baylor, Bettinger landed a job in his hometown, at McDonald Sanders. It was 1991. The state had just overhauled the workers’ compensation system, and business in that area—helping companies that opted out of the state system to set up private programs—boomed. His mentor, Gary Thompson, showed him the ropes. He also taught him a life lesson.
“He was one of the happiest guys around,” Bettinger says. “He would whistle when he walked around the office. He always told me, ‘You’ve got to like what you do. And if your practice ceases to be fun, either you need to change the way you do it or you need to consider doing something else.’”
That afternoon, when he was on the phone listening to the litigator yelling on the other end, feeling his smile and his spirit slide toward the floor, Bettinger thought of his mentor and knew it was time for a change.
At the same time, two other things clicked into place.
First, he attended an annual National Adoption Day event and noticed how happy everyone involved was: “The lawyers. The families. The kids. Everybody.
“Well, I wasn’t going to retool and become a family lawyer specializing in adoptions.” Still, he was struck at how happy people were simply to make a kid smile. And, he noticed, all the kids had balloons.
Then a balloon artist performed at his daughter’s second birthday party, and there they were again—smiling children and adults.
“I watched that guy and I said, ‘You know what? I think I can do that,’” he says. “I think I can learn that.”
Thank goodness for the internet, he adds. “Everything you ever want to know about twisting balloons you can find on YouTube.”
He began devouring instructional videos, and popping a lot of balloons: “It’s part of the game.”
Lesson No. 1, he says: “Never use cheap balloons.” Go for quality, not the kind you find at the grocery store.
No. 2: Beginners always use too much air. “Every time you twist it, it pushes the air toward the end of the balloon. If you’ve already filled the balloon up, that air has nowhere to go.”
He got good. And he got fast. He figures he can now tie one- or two-balloon sculptures—dogs and swords and that kind of thing—at nearly one a minute. Which he does as often as he can, at a variety of charity events and festivals throughout the year.
But if you give him more time, he’ll make something a lot fancier. He’s developed into a full-blown balloon sculptor, spending up to a week twisting and weaving elaborate, multicolored pieces involving hundreds of balloons.
It started with a beehive and now includes waist-high lions, tigers and panda bears; golf bags and gumball machines; and—for a cousin’s wedding—a full-size bride and groom.
All free of charge. The only payment he accepts are smiles.