Florida State University’s Flying High Circus begins long road to recovery after May 10 tornadoes

Chad Mathews, director of the FSU Flying High Circus, looks at the aftermath of a tornado after it brought down the big-top tent on May 10, 2024. (FSU Photography)

On the morning of May 10, three tornadoes touched down in Tallahassee in less than 30 minutes, leaving behind a trail of destruction that destroyed FSU’s iconic circus tent.

Since the mid-1960s, the FSU Flying High Circus had been the only collegiate circus in the United States with a big-top tent. Now, the tent’s fabric is in tatters, its steel structures and seating in disrepair. The tent and all its contents underneath, including equipment, are unusable.

With a cast of 100 student volunteers and staff members led by Director Chad Mathews, the circus is a fully operational production with routines including on-stage acrobatics, aerial acts, clowning, dancing and a ringmaster.

“The circus has been an integral part of FSU’s history and tradition since 1947, providing entertainment and education to thousands of students and community members every year,” said Amy Hecht, vice president for Student Affairs. “We are deeply saddened by this tragedy, but we are also determined to recover and rebuild better with more sustainability.”

The circus was one of the first ways of integrating men and women after Florida State became co-ed and serves as an extracurricular activity for students under FSU’s Division of Student Affairs.

The FSU Flying High Circus big-top tent in the aftermath of the tornadoes on the morning of May 10, 2024. (FSU Photography)

FSU alumna Nicole Viverito, who works in the FSU Office of Research, said, “I sought out FSU because of the circus and met some of my best friends. It’s the biggest family I’ve ever had.”

Viverito said her father, Wayne Fearnbach, a high-wire performer at FSU from 1969-1973, played a part in influencing her decision to leave New Jersey and join the FSU Flying High Circus while getting her degree. During her time at FSU from 2007-2012, she mastered aerial cradle and the flying trapeze. She also met her husband, Matt, who went on to be a professional flying trapeze artist and now works at FSU’s Department of Psychology.

Her love for her circus family didn’t end when she completed her degree. Viverito served as the president of the Circus Alumni Association for three years and was instrumental in the 75th anniversary of FSU’s Flying High Circus celebration.

“You make such wonderful connections with not only peers and their families, but the Tallahassee community as a whole,” Viverito said. “The circus touches so many people in so many positive ways.”


Proud circus alumna Meghan Gudelsky said she loved every circus role. She performed cloud swinging and hand balancing from 2000 to 2003.

“When you are in the circus, your act(s) are a small part of the overall production,” Gudelsky said. “I loved practicing, performing, rigging, learning safety, coaching, holding lines, working the music, sewing costumes, putting the tent up and down, learning knots and how to engage an audience. It takes a team working hard together under pressure to put on a show.”

Gudelsky credits her experiences for helping her learn resilience, hard work, teamwork and trust, which prepared her for her career. She is in her 20th year working in the event production industry, creating and planning large-scale events with live entertainment.

“The FSU Circus is a one-of-a-kind performing arts program that is crewed by student volunteers of all walks of life,” Gudelsky said. “It was my love, experience and unique understanding of the performing arts that opened doors for me and allowed me to succeed behind the scenes.”

She, like many others, hopes to get the circus program back up as soon as possible. The university is still fully assessing the damage after the storm and is working with FSU Facilities and insurance teams.


While it’s unclear as to how much total repairs will cost, one thing is certain — the love and commitment to fortify the foundation and recovery of the FSU Flying High Circus. Hecht said there is an overwhelming outpouring of support from across social media channels, calls, emails and text messages, not only from alumni across the nation but organizations as well.

“The legacy is strong,” Viverito said. “We’re resilient, and the show must go on.”

“This tragedy offers an opportunity and prioritizes a need for a more sustainable and durable structure moving forward,” said Alanna Kibiloski, senior director of development for Student Affairs.

An FSU Flying High Circus Recovery Fund has been set up to aid in the rebuilding efforts and future expansion.

“Any amount, large or small, will make a difference to ensure the circus is around for generations to come,” Kibiloski said.

Donations are tax-deductible and will go directly to support this effort.

For more information on how to support the FSU Flying High Circus, visit give.fsu.edu/CircusRecovery.