Last week I lost someone very dear to me. He is virtually unknown, with almost no social footprint, yet he has had a profound influence on me. I know he also quietly affected many lives. Joe is my mother’s older brother. He was married to my Aunt Martha and they did not have any children. Yet, as Martha likes to say, they have lots of kids. This statement is very true.
My Uncle, who was always purposeful and careful in planning, prepared what would happen at his funeral in advance. I do not think he expected many to attend, I think he expected to quietly exit the stage and move forward into eternity. The fact this was not the case shows how important he was to many of us. I know that all of my brothers loved and cared about him like I do. I know that they also have stories to tell.
Joe and Martha lived in Grandview, Missouri which is a southern Suburb of Kansas City. Until 1975 my family lived near them in the Kansas City area. They were close with my parents, so as a youngster I stayed at their home a few days a week. I have fond memories of running around their house, playing in the basement, going to a park or the common ground, and listening to Joe.
Every day he would come home from work and have something to share or explain. He was a press operator for Hallmark cards in those days. He would bring home bits of a press or some misprinted cards and carefully explain the entire process. It was always fascinating because his voice resonated and seemed so powerful, yet he was very patient with questions.
I distinctly remember being in awe of all the things he did. For a young child, the tandem bike was extremely impressive. I also remember sitting in the garage as he worked on his car or someone else’s. He had an impressive array of well organized tools. He knew where everything was and how to use it. While we were working, friends would drop by to talk and I would just sit there and listen. Joe would often be giving advice, and who knows how many paths he set straight in that driveway and garage.
Joe built lots of things and would build them well. He hand built a remote control plane that is hanging in my parents’ house today. I know that he and my dad built a mini hydroplane as well. The house was full of items that he had tinkered with and built with his own hands. He would often talk to me about how to solve problems when they arose. I cannot help but assume that some of my problem solving approach came from him.
Joe also liked to have a dog and cat around. This was a bit of a challenge for me since I was severely allergic to both pets. In fact, the one time I was hospitalized for asthma was from being at their home. I am sure that my constant allergies caused my behavior to be pretty awful at times, yet I was always welcome there.
Welcome to everyone except Mac. Mac was my aunt and uncle’s Scotty. He was all hair and sharp teeth and did not seem to like anyone except Joe and Martha. He was probably not as scary as he seemed to a five year old, but my memory of him is frightening. Fortunately Joe kept him from eating me and my brother, though we did have some close calls.
It was in these years that I learned that Joe had answers. When I had a question, Joe would listen to me and then help find the path.
We moved to St. Louis in 1975 and we would make regular trips back to Kansas City. The trip took an entire day and went through so many small towns. I remember it was always exciting to go see Joe and Martha. I am sure all of us have memories from these trips, but I remember the familiarity I felt, and still feel today, walking into the house. From the sound of the screen door, to the light coming in the dining room window, the sights, sounds and smells are poignant memories.
I would immediately head to the cookie jar where I would find a small treat. Martha was diabetic and she always seemed to have cookies around. As the years went by it became vanilla wafers, but in earlier years the cookie selection varied in the cookie jar.
As I became a teenager, cars became more of a focus. My uncle Joe loved cars and we would talk about them endlessly. When I was working on my car I was learning. I would run into a problem or something I did not understand and immediately I would call Joe. He was very patient, talking with me for hours and hours about my car repairs. I remember running out to the car, looking specifically for something he described, then running back in to continue the conversation. His patience was stunning.
One of cars was a 1971 VW Type 3 Fastback. The Type 3 was the first major production car with fuel injection. This system of fuel delivery was a mystery to most driveway mechanics at the time yet Joe seemed to know. He walked me through so many rounds of troubleshooting on that car. In one particular situation I needed to change the oil pump. He told me I needed to replace the gasket for the oil pump and not re-use the old one. He even told me it would be very tempting to not get a new one(hard to find) but that the motor could suck in the old one if I reused it because it was saturated with oil.
He was right on so many levels. It was the middle of the night and to me the oil pump gasket looked fine. I re-used it as he knew I would be tempted to, and the motor sucked it in as he knew it would. A good lesson for a young man to learn. This was also the time my mother found me working under the car in just my tighty whiteys with the garage open and the light on. I have no idea why I would have been doing such a thing but let’s just say it was not my finest hour…
Before the stroke
As I went through college and early adulthood Joe was a fixture. Whether it was continuing the phone conversations around cars, work, computers, or it was a life challenge, Joe always listened and always had good advice. He was also eager to learn.
I always identified Joe as my uncle that should have been an engineer. As I studied in school we would talk about the various topics I was covering. He would have lots of questions and some very practical insights.
Joe and Martha were important and included in many of my life decisions. I will not forget the first time I took Lynn over to visit them. I was specifically looking for their approval for our marriage and it was a great visit. It was rather humorous, we were very concerned with being proper so Lynn stayed in the guest room while I slept in the back of my pickup in the driveway. It was an extremely cold night so Joe rigged me up a space heater from the garage, into the back of my truck. I think he was amused that I did not just sleep on the couch.
Throughout the 1990’s I was very blessed to have a large business operation and many clients in Kansas City. I was able to stay with Uncle Joe and Aunt Martha on almost every trip. Many times I would drive over, but there were times I would fly. I remember one specific situation vividly. In the mid 90s I flew to KC because I was flying on to another destination after a couple of days. Joe picked me up in his brand new Buick and he was very proud of it. We spent hours sitting on the driveway going through all of its extensive features. Electronics were just coming into the forefront of car design and this one was loaded.
He loved that car and took great care of it. In 2013 my oldest daughter was married and they received that Buick as a wedding gift. He may or may not have remembered the significance, but it meant a lot to me and has been a great blessing to my daughter’s family. A reminder of the benefits of these human connections we have.
Back to the 1990’s, on my trips to Kansas City my toddler daughter would often come with me. I knew what a wonderful place Joe’s house was and they really bonded in that time. While I went to meetings, Christian would stay with Joe and Martha. She had so much to talk about on the rides home! She even got to know the cookie jar.
I also remember the dinners we would have in the evening, and the talks into the night. It was such an amazing feeling to be there and made traveling much easier. I learned a lot about woodworking, machining metal, and other topics we would explore. On these trips Joe and I would talk a lot about technology and computers. He was learning computers himself and we would look extensively at the complex spreadsheets he was building, or the digital video systems I was putting together. There was one time I demonstrated streaming video over ethernet to him. He had so many questions and it was really fun to process through how it worked with him.
A life-long learner
Joe spent most of his career running a printing press for Hallmark Cards. It was difficult, complex, work that took a toll physically. After many years Joe’s body started to wear out and he knew his time was limited. It was at this time he decided to learn to use computers and software to hopefully transition to some other aspect of the business. He asked my father to come over to Kansas City and teach him.
In a very short time Joe went from not understanding computers at all to literally building a complex operational spreadsheet system using Informix Wingz spreadsheet. I remember him walking me through the macros, graphing and complex calculations. Raw materials tracking, press efficiency, time to ship, plant throughput, and many other parameters were modeled and tracked in what was a very powerful platform at the time. I expect that Hallmark benefited greatly from his commitment and intelligence. I was impressed at his ability to pivot in the latter part of his career. This is not something that is very common.
After the stroke
I remember going to the hospital with him for his surgery in 1996. I will never forget talking to him in the hospital room, that was the last time I really heard his voice. I was very concerned for him, and as was his nature, he was very concerned for me. The last thing I remember him saying to me was “Michael, no matter what happens, it will be ok”. I still remember walking out of the room and looking back at him, and I remember looking at the hospital from the parking lot and as I got onto the highway.
The surgery to unblock his arteries was successful but while in the recovery room he suffered a stroke. His most obvious loss was the control of his speech and his mouth. It is amazing how the memory of how someone says your name can affect you. It is really hard to describe without sounding foolish but the way he said it meant something.
After the stroke, Joe really committed himself to recovery and overcoming the obstacles presented to him. He tried out new technologies, creatively crafted gizmos to assist him with everyday tasks. He was very determined to not be kept down by his physical limitations. In many ways he was a strong inspiration as I went through my own medical challenges starting in 2000. When I would get discouraged or want to just pack it in, his commitment to moving forward was always pushing me on.
As our kids were growing, we were able to visit them and spend time in Kansas City on occasion, although due to my health it was not as often as we wanted. I am very thankful that my kids were able to get to know Joe and Martha. They have heard stories from him (mostly through written excerpts) and about him over and over through the years.
In July of 2007 my family, Joe and Martha, my parents, and my in-laws made a trip to the Southwest. We took a caravan of campers and explored the Grand Canyon and the surrounding areas. It was an awesome opportunity to spend quality time with Joe and Martha and I feel it really helped my kids know them in a deeper way. In many ways it was an amazing trip. Joe, of course, had the best rig of us all. He had his “dream truck” pulling a beautiful Airstream trailer. It was all set up for his special medical needs and handled the trip with ease.
Two years ago I went again to visit Joe, he had something he wanted to show me. Once again he had a new car and just like so many times before, we drove his new car around Longview Lake, through Grandview, stopping to look at all the neat features. He had once again worked through all the different priorities he had and sorted out the perfect car for his needs. I am so privileged that he wanted to share that with me.
I am just one person’s worth of experience with Joe. I know that he had special relationships with my parents, my brothers, and many others. I will miss him the rest of my days. I will miss the late night talks, especially the last 20 years as he furiously wrote what he was trying to communicate on a pad of paper or an erasable slate. This was always an adventure in and of itself. He would essentially write short-hand because he had so much to say. We would piece together the thoughts and see very clearly that the sharp intellect and sense of humor were still there and active.
I have reflected on his life the last week since his passing. As I have prayed the following verse comes to mind almost immediately:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23.
Joe demonstrated every one of these attributes to me, all the days I knew him. He did not talk about his faith in ways we are accustomed to in the church. He did live it out in a very obvious and visible way. This weekend I was on worship team at church and we sang the following refrain that has been quite impactful for me:
Let my deeds outrun my words
Let my life outweigh my songs
Joe, you lived this out for all of us. I will love you and miss you always.