He was closer in age to me than to my mother. Only nine years older than me, “Uncle Joe” was 14 years younger than my mother. He was 17 years younger than my “Aunt Cat” who was a Senior in high school when he was born. She left for Auburn before he was a year old.
Joe was one of a kind from the earliest days. I will not say that he was like an older brother to me, we were too different for that. But we did share a relationship to our family that ebbed and flowed over time before coming back to a solid connection in the last two decades of his life.
Uncle Joe married young and divorced before two years had passed. He never married again, though he had several long-term girlfriends. His last companion, June, proved that a good partner can make you a better person. Though their relationship did not last, her impact on his life did.
Joe taught me a lot of things as a boy growing up in a small town. He lived less than a half mile from me. Some of those things I cannot share in this column, but every boy, especially an oldest son like me needs someone to guide him along the way.
Joe served as a chauffeur on my very first date. Amazingly, that first date was with Mary Lou, though it was years later before we seriously dated.
Joe took me to my first X-rated movie, though it wasn’t classified by the standards of today. I honestly did not understand “A Clockwork Orange” and had no idea why it received that classification. I watched the movie 30 years later and still did not get it.
Joe loved Compass Lake as much as I did. He was the best water skier that I have ever seen. He skied at Callaway Gardens for a couple of years honing his skills. My favorite memory with him at the lake was getting on his shoulders while he climbed a short ladder on a flying saucer, a round disc that was popular at the time.
After a short time at Auburn and a stint in the Marines, Joe became an offshore oil rigger. During our occasional visits I was mesmerized by his stories of working on an oil rig, and even more by his tales of his time off in New Orleans.
Joe moved to the Virgin Islands where he tended bar on a sandy beach. It seemed like a dream to me at the time.
The day I moved into an apartment with my longtime roommate at Auburn, Joe showed up in Auburn wanting to take me out. I did not know this night out on the town on the first day of school would include visits to Army haunts in Columbus before heading to Phenix City for late-night rounds in some sketchy bars.
I returned to my apartment as the sun was rising. I am proud to say that my roommate did not bolt and run after that first night in our apartment.
Joe was a rebellious teenager that gave his parents some trying times. At the same time, I was an adoring grandchild of those same people. It was a strain between us that we both had to work to overcome.
That is the legacy of my Uncle Joe. You do not give up on family, ever. After a career in real estate in Florida, Joe came to work for Ponder Enterprises. He oversaw a program we called Serious About Service.
He could be aggravating to the managers when he inspected their restaurants. He heard every excuse in the world. His response to their complaints about their scores was usually “It is what it is”. He would say the numbers tell the story.
Along the way, Joe truly became my “Uncle Joe”. I will never forget him telling how proud he was of me after some award I received. We became friends. He attended every holiday with our family.
Uncle Joe died this past week on his 74th birthday. He appeared healthy and cheerful at our Christmas family gathering just three weeks earlier. His sudden death remains a shock.
I could make the story of Uncle Joe much more interesting. He was a character, one of a kind. He could be charming, funny and infuriating. He could dance all night. He was an expert. About everything.
But at the end of his life, Uncle Joe returned to his family. He had the opportunity to show in his own way that he loved them.
We each take different paths in our walk through life. It is comforting to know that no matter how different those paths may be, we are connected to our family whether we like it our not.
Joe’s favorite statement was “It is what it is”. I cannot help but think that as he passed surrounded by family that the statement should be “It is what it was meant to be.” Rest in peace, Uncle Joe.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org