A Guy Named Joe

Original Sin and the Good Samaritan
Image by Nick in exsilio via Flickr


Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together. – Goethe

On March 1, 2007, Joe had his last day as a front desk security guard.  For over 15 years, he was the first person that you’d see when you entered his company’s corporate headquarters.  Joe possessed a special talent: You could meet Joe once and forever after, he would never, ever forget your name.

I interviewed with Joe’s company in February 2005 at their corporate offices in Trumbull.  Nervous at my first interview in over twenty years, I met Joe – who stood up and warmly grasped my arm with his large catcher’s mitt hands.  “Michael, welcome, welcome.  Isn’t it a great day today?”  I looked outside.  It was cold and gray, threatening sleet and other meteorological mischief.  “Nice to meet you, too; um…I’m sorry, I did not catch your name?”  “Joe, Michael. My name is Joe.  Come and see us again.”

I returned eight weeks later as a new employee.  My first day was filled with trepidation.  I had left behind a 23-year career with my former firm, and it felt strange and unnatural to be arriving at a new employer.  I had regrets and doubts.  I didn’t know where to park.  Everything was wrong.  I carried with me a box filled with pictures and mementos, depressed in the knowledge that a long career could fit so easily in a single cardboard container.  As is often the case with large companies, no one actually remembered I was starting that day.  There were no instructions for me on where to go.  As I walked in the front doors with my box, Joe looked at me and immediately smiled, “Michael, it’s great to see you back.  Michael?  Are you moving in with us?  Bless me, Michael; I believe you are joining our company.”  He stood up and came around the desk and grabbed my box, putting an arm around my shoulder, shepherding me to the rear of the building to my office and my new professional life.

Each day as I walked across the front foyer to lunch, Joe would be saying hello on a first-name basis to every employee as they walked by – on their way to meetings, lunch, or appointments. “Carol…how is that gorgeous daughter of yours?”  “Jeff, it’s great to see you.  You have a good lunch.”  “Tom, Tom, Tom…mmm, mmm, mmm, my friend, I believe you have lost some weight.”  My predecessor, the former CEO, would purposely have visitors, regulators and key customers wait in the foyer because Joe would be there to meet them; as he said, “Joe always warmed them up.”

Joe never missed a day of work in 16 years.  Joe lived with his two daughters in Bridgeport and, like so many who seek to serve others, he softened the sharp edges of his own neighborhood wherever he went.  A colleague driving through Bridgeport one afternoon happened to spy Joe riding his bicycle along a city street.  “I tried to get his attention but he was riding on the other side of the road.  I stopped at a red light and watched Joe in my rear view mirror.  There was a homeless man draped across the sidewalk; pedestrians were stepping over him, careful not to make eye contact.  Joe stopped his bike and instead of walking around the man, disappeared into a bank.  Joe walked outside, handed the man a $20 bill and rode away.  That was Joe.”

Joe scraped together money to study at night to be a minister.  He had passed his courses and begun a process of becoming an ordained minister.  When Joe’s company was bought by a much larger corporate giant, he remained the front foyer fixture.  Joe saw it as his mission to be an important source of reassuring continuity to employees new and old – reinforcing the point that no matter how large the firm became, one person would know their names and make sure they were all okay.

There’s a story…someone in the new parent company’s home office observed that the security guard in the Trumbull facility was possibly overpaid.  That was until a home office management team visited, some six months after their first visit.  Joe shined. “Dave, it’s good to see you again, welcome back.  Mike, you look like you have grown two inches.  Steve, how are those two boys you told me about?”  Their jaws dropped and one of the executives whispered to another, “We’ve got to give this guy a raise.”

Joe was the heart and soul of his firm.  He reminded us all that the most precious asset in any company is its people.  He embodied all the values that any well run firm seeks to cultivate in its employees – personal responsibility, compassion, commitment and focus on the customer.  Joe had figured out that the richest person is not the executive with the big salary or the private jet; it is the man or woman who has friends and who is guided by a purpose greater than themselves.  His humility was a sweet perfume that permeated everything and everyone around him.

On Friday, March 1, we let the word out in headquarters that Joe would be celebrating his last day.  The pace of the day and the time of year had us assuming perhaps 50-75 people joining us for an intimate farewell.  I was an accomplice in getting Joe to come with me to check something in the main cafeteria.  The doors opened up and I was shocked to see over 900 people – smiling, clapping and crying.  “Joe, Joe, Joe” was a rhythmic chant that rolled throughout the building.  Joe began to cry.  “I am just so grateful to be called your friend.”  We exchanged our favorite stories about how Joe calmed angry customers, consoled fellow employees and celebrated marriages, births and promotions.  He was leaving to become the pastor at a rural Baptist church in South Carolina.  In his first impromptu sermon to an adoring congregation, he paced the room trying to find the words.  In the end, he handed me back the microphone to hold back the tears.  “Thank you, thank you…” was all he could keep repeating.

Joe later walked out the front door, a slight figure wearing a faded blue vest and brown pants, carrying bags brimming with presents from his admirers – a new bible, gift certificates and a massive picture album signed by over 800 people including two retired CEOs.  He left as he came every day, urging people not to worry about him. “Michael!” he yelled back to me.  “Don’t let them change this place and don’t let the ‘community’ die.  It’s all we got, man.”  He got in his car, gave the right of way to another car and disappeared.

As he headed to a new community as an ordained pastor, most of us realized he was our lay minister, teaching us every day that the thing that matters most in life is each other.  All that from a guy most of us only knew simply as “Joe.”

Sundays With Gary

Sundays With Gary

“A life defined by love will not seek to protect itself or justify itself.  It will be content to be itself and to give itself away with abandon…. love never judges.  Love simply announces that the person you are, nor the deeds you have done, have erected a barrier which the power of this invincible presence cannot overcome.”. Bishop John Spong.

In 1997, journalist Mitch Albom wrote a heart-warming chronicle of the final months he spent with his college professor and mentor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of ALS. Many of us, like Albom -a reporter whose world view had been hardened by a career exposed to life’s harsh inequities, were moved by the valuable life lessons tutored from a 78 year old sociology professor who had dedicated a lifetime of service to shaping young minds.  In the process of imparting his final vita dictata to Mitch, he touched the world.

Morrie’s favorite saying from WH Auden was emphatic: we must “love each other or perish.” In the book, Albom is slowly resuscitated to see the world for its possibilities instead of its limitations, and in his personal resurrection, we find hope. We are blessed if we are fortunate enough to find a Morrie Schwartz – a selfless mentor whose life exemplifies the simple truths that “love conquers all” and that “fear and faith cannot not possibly coexist in the same space.”

New Canaan possessed for a brief and magical time our own Morrie Schwartz in the physical and spiritual being of Pastor Gary Wilburn. Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Gary stepped down from a dozen year tenure as pastor of New Canaan’s Presbyterian church in 2008.

While his body was beginning to succumb to the debilitating symptoms of his disease, he and his wife Bev, sharpened their resolve and focused on the gift of life – moving to a remote town in Baja Mexico to be closer to family, praise every day and to race time to craft a handbook of living in the form of a trilogy of books. His first two books, The God I Don’t Believe In : Charting A New Course for Christianity and Lot’s of Hope pushed us to reclaim the essential message of Jesus and to embrace the power of hope to change a broken world. Gary’s third and final book – Lots Of Love – is an urgent and loving testimonial to the simple but fundamental building blocks of our human and spiritual DNA – that “love is the beginning and the end of our journey.”

Gary and Bev Wilburn’s triumphs and setbacks are faithfully chronicled by Bev on a website called Caring Bridge that reaches across time zones and distance to bond friends and family of those living with chronic illness.  With Bev as the family air traffic controller, Gary redirects every ounce of his physical being as an author – a celestial cartographer and guide — tracking our human journey as spiritual beings and interpreting along the way the simple divinity that swirls around us.

In a time of great fear and uncertainty, we need these clerics, shamans, priests, and holy persons in our lives to help interpret the deeper meaning of our existence. “Lots of Love” achieves spiritual interpretation the way Stephen Hawking fashioned a less complicated lens to the cosmos in his brilliant book, A Brief History of The Universe.   How ironic that these extraordinary insights should come from two men whose bodies conspire each day to rob them of their ability to teach us.

Pastor Wilburn understands that society is, by nature, cynical with self-interest but also believes unquestionably in the divine flickering in us like a candle hidden under a bushel basket.  Our life’s mission is to discover our potential as change agents in a world through the simple act of loving.  Gary guides us the way a naturalist might walk us along a gentle mountain path, pointing out the beauty and genius of simple acts of kindness and beckons us to be certain we inhale the rich pine scented humanity that comes from our compassion, humor and values that bind us all as families and communities.

Gary chronicles and celebrates the undeniable goodness of people and relates vignette after vignette of countless acts of love, gratitude and faith – whether it is in the simple act of passengers giving up their seats at Christmas so an overbooked flight can make room for soldiers trying to get home on leave from Iraq, to the half century romantic story of Nate and Theo, a New Canaan couple whose lives and deaths proved as remarkable a testament to inexorable love as any parable.

Each day physical life may conspire to ebb out of Gary’s body but his spirit flows through his pen and his glorious fight to bring us all a message of hope at the holiday season. Lots of Love is an ornament to be hung on every tree, a candle to be lit on the last night of Hanukkah, an Eid prayer at Ramadan and a strand of lights at the new moon of Diwali.

Gary’s message at these holidays is captured in the haunted words of the great social reformer, Charles Dickens and the miraculous self-revelation of George Bailey in “Its A Wonderful Life”. Lots of Love walks us across a shattered mosque in Iraq and points out the angels that flit around us each day – our eyes not completely adjusted to see these selfless spirits in the bright light of their kindness.

I can see Gary Wilburn every night in my minds eye.  He is resting in his motorized chair, silhouetted against a tangerine and blood red sunset praising every minute of a warm, Baja afternoon.  Bev is nearby, a soft constant breeze and beloved companion.   He smiles and rests – a spiritual being on a human journey.  He considers the gifts and challenges that he has been presented in a life advising and leading affluent and underserved communities. He is at peace.

I call him my Captain and miss him every day that he has been away.  He taught his congregation to listen, to seek to understand, to probe for the truth and yes, occasionally cry with outrage when a serially flawed society fails to make unconditional love its ultimate priority.  He urges us with labored breath that it is through this door of love that we can discover joy, spiritual connection with a power greater than ourselves and rise to heights as humans never thought possible – buoyed by the sheer weightlessness of seeking truth and justice.

Gary has discovered his one thing and shared it with us.  He offers up in Lots Of Love an antidote to anyone whose life is ruled more by fear than faith and who has yet to extricate themselves from the cat’s cradle snares of life’s material traps.

As he would often share with his loving but recidivist and reluctant congregation, “these three things remain: Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is Love.” (1 Corinthians 13)