Good-bye Joe

by cheri block

I have just learned that my mentor, Joe, died suddenly last night.

As Joe would have it, I am supposed to teach in 30 minutes, so I cannot cry my eyes out (yet).

Our lunch meeting to discuss Galileo is off.

A big personality, larger than life, has left this experience for the Great Beyond.

I am honored to have been his student up until last week.

I’d like to submit this post again, in honor of my friend Joe, and wish him safe travels to beyond our cosmos. Tonight, I will have a J&B on the rocks, even though I don’t like the taste. And maybe lobster. Then I’ll turn on an Italian opera and blare the music for all to hear.

One of life’s unique people has gone. Good-bye Joe!

First written: 2009

Once a month, Joe and I meet for lunch and strong coffee.

He never lets me pay. “That’s against my nature, Baby,” he says.
He drives a shiny black car, newly washed, with a license plate that reads Cent Ani.

God, I hope that is true. I need Joe around for at least 23 more years.

At the end of each lunch, Joe drives his car up to mine. He gets out, dressed in slacks and a grey vest and drops two paper bags, full of magazines like the New Yorker, Harpers, Scientific American and the Atlantic into my trunk. All of these and more he has read in one month. Joe refuses to buy a computer.

After a lunch with Joe, my mind percolates with the ideas we have shared, usually a rousing conversation about education, politics, philosophy or literature.

Joe is my mentor. He, more than anyone else, has shaped my views about all things education. We have known each other since I was 15 years old, an opinionated high school student. He hired me in 1972 to teach English and I hired him back in 2000 to teach Latin.

We had lunch last week.

Joe, you were my humanities instructor. Your intensity and expression mesmerized me. Despite tremendous political upheaval and distraction during the 60’s, you captivated me. How did you do that? What goes into being a great teacher?

“The great teacher has a sense of humor about the job. The job is not doable and seeing that, operating within the absurd, the great teacher has a narrow window to convince his students that the subject is worth learning.

We need an inexhaustible curiosity about our subject.

We must have a profound empathy for young people and be non-judgmental. In essence, love the sinners while you hate the sins that they commit.”

This belief comes from Joe’s experience as a young rebel.

Joe grew up in San Francisco, an angry young boy who lost his dad when he was five years old.

“My dad, Dominic, was born in Sicily. He worked as a lumper (one who unloads the trucks) at the produce market for 11 years. He died at age 35 and left my mom, Sadie, a widow at 26. My mom worked two jobs in the 30’s to pay off the debt my dad had accrued in the 1937 collapse of the celery market.

In essence, my grandmother Nona raised me. She spoke only Italian. I was a pugnacious kid, angry because I didn’t have a dad. Every day I would fight with Jerry Segalas, an Irish kid. One night, he kicked the hell out of me and I ended up with a bloody nose. All I could think of was being hugged by my Nona, but when I came home with blood all over me, she knocked me across the room. Her words became a cornerstone in my belief system:

When you want to fight, fight, but when you lose, don’t come home crying: take responsibility.

I ended up at St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco. One teacher, Ed Doyle, helped me to become a scholarship student. Ed wrote mystery reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle on Sundays. He gave me a reading list of banned books, the spirit of which, took me to Cal Berkeley. I loved books; I majored in English and philosophy.”

Was Ed Doyle a great teacher?

“I was looking for reassurance that whoever I was, I was accepted. It was OK to be a little goofy as long as I had a value structure at a deeper level.

We haven’t taught teachers to appreciate the vicissitudes of teens. The system has become less accepting because we have Balkanized ourselves: African-American, Asian American. That’s a bunch of bull. If I had a template to make them [teachers] successful, I would give it to them and we would all go home.

There is no template. It’s who you are and what you are and each has to do it on his own. Sine Qua Non.”

What gets in the way of becoming a great teacher?

“Cheri, the most serious problem facing teachers and teacher organizations is the failure to recognize their audience.”

Joe understands his audience. Still teaching aspiring teachers, he is a blast from the past, a blow torch of opinion.

Perhaps this story, which Joe says may be a myth, best captures his life.

“I was born with pyloric stenosis and born at a time when it was a fatal disease. Although Dr. Flood, the greatest infant surgeon at Mr. Zion Hospital, would perform the surgery when I was 6 days old, the hospital staff told my parents to prepare for the worst and buy a casket.

When I didn’t die, my Uncle Vinny threw a party in the Exselsior District of San Francisco. They threw the tiny casket in the fireplace, things got out of control, and the house burnt down.”

Joe’s life hasn’t been the same since he lost his bride, Maureen, several years ago. But he lives his life, still teaching and mentoring young teachers, still in the mix, still enjoying the opera, baseball, and books.

Joe’s life is a double espresso.

About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
This entry was posted in Life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to Good-bye Joe

  1. Sara Marek says:

    I’m blown away. You just think some people will live forever. Sorry, Mom.

  2. Dear Cheri,

    I am sorry Joe is no longer here. As I pack tonight for a train trip to Burlington, VT tomorrow I couldn’t leave in good conscience without responding about your mentor and friend, Joe.

    Know what I think? You made him feel beautiful. Yes, beautiful. You made him feel loved and special which, if you made him feel that way, he obviously was.

    I didn’t like his Nona not one bit. It was bad, her reaction. It was hard and cold and cruel and I’m sure it wasn’t a singular event. He was a little boy who had lost his father for God’s sake. Yes, I feel very strongly about this kind of thing….

    How direct he was, your interesting friend, Joe, and how direct your word arrows fly, straight to the heart of your reader and PA friend, MJ. I’m so sorry he’s gone.

    Kisses Cheri.

    • Cheri says:

      I always appreciate your comments, Mary Jane.

      Hope your trip to Burlington was for pleasure. I seem to remember a post about your being on a train trip and having synchronicity.

  3. zeusiswatching says:

    May God grant him Memory Eternal.

    Your posts about Joe have been some of the best and most memorable I’ve ever read. Such men and women, treasures really, breathe life into us just by living their own lives.

    Grieve with love. When you have finished grieving, continue to love.

  4. steve says:

    Carissimo Giuseppe:
    Come un buon sangiovese, il suo corposo fino alla fine, e così lontano dal nostro tavolo va il nostro caro amico e mentore. Un altro bambino perfetto di Dio, il migliore, è ora in anno sabbatico. Ti amo Joe. Salutami il mio papà …

    (Humankind has lost a man of substance; a man who was diligent, scholarly, honest, passionate and drank the nectar of life down to its last drop.)

  5. Cheri, as long as you live and Steve lives and all those who matured through his work live, Joe is alive. That is part, if not all, the after life we think may exist.
    Keep on doing what you are doing and Joe will be with you.

  6. Heather says:

    When I was a brand new teacher working for you I would get to work early and stand outside Joe’s classroom so I could listen to him teach Latin. I always wished I could be one of his students. Joe had the magic. I am so sorry for your loss, Cheri.

  7. jenny says:

    I’m sorry for your loss. Two professors come to my mind.
    One once shared with me this awesome sentence from an undergraduate exam: “After World War I, Poland was quartered into three unequal halves.” I think about him and laugh every time I tell the story.

    The other is still alive. I’ll write a letter to him tonight.

    My condolences.

  8. Steve says:


    Beautifully put and I have always believed what you expressed so eloquently. We are all in the circle.

    Thank you and good evening.


  9. ana terán says:

    I’m really really sorry, Cheri. I know there’s no consolation but what he gave you is yours forever. I hug you, Ana

  10. Philippe says:

    My very sincere condolences, Cheri. My thoughts are with you.

  11. I’m sorry Joe has passed away, Cheri. It’s been a long and lovely relationship you’ve had. His intelligence and sensitivity beams from the page. SGCxx

  12. Man of Roma says:

    I have no words Cheri …. I’ll come back having an urgent problem to solve.

    I am so afflicted by this loss …. 😦

  13. Richard says:

    I’m so sorry, Cheri.

  14. wkkortas says:

    I think Joe’s comment about the nature of teaching in terms of its absurdity and general impossibility (but its absolute necessity, as well) sums up the profession better than all the textbooks ever written and seminars ever presented could.

    • Cheri says:

      Yep. You are right. You two would have gotten along famously when it comes to baseball.

      Joe understood the story of the game, the nuances, the artistry. I never did.

  15. Jeanie says:

    Dear Cheri ..
    I am so sorry for your loss.
    When I first read about Joe I wished that I had had such a mentor when I was young.
    Now, seeing his warm smiling, intelligent, and ‘interested in you face’ in your photograph, I haven’t changed my wish. You were blessed to have had such a friend.
    May he still visit with you often, in your minds eye, to help make you smile.

  16. bogard says:

    My condolences to you, Cheri. He was great man, without doubt. I remember him well from years ago: smiling, robust, passionate…to the end, now. So glad you spent so many years with him.

    • Cheri says:

      Well Bill, we certainly have some outrageous memories of Sam and Joe, like two mafia members, wandering the halls in black coats and red carnations.

      Joe always let Sam do the dirty work. He came out smelling like a rose instead of a carnation.

  17. Cheri says:

    Thank you, all!

    Most of us have had people like Joe in our lives– people who took an interest in us, piqued our curiosity, stunned us with their brash opinions, listened patiently to our questions, condoned our manners (at times) and pushed us on despite ourselves.

    I appreciate all of your love and kindness coming in locally and from across the seas.

    Joe left me in the middle of an essay. How appropriate. He always gave me the last word. I am very grateful for his friendship (and yours).

  18. Cheri, I am so sorry to hear of Joe’s passing. He was truly a great man, and a great influence in your life, and in so many others. Though he takes his place beside your father (wherever that may be), you are blessed to have known them both in such an intimate manner. Yours is a wonderful tribute.

  19. sledpress says:

    I can only utter a “me too” to what Jeanie said. There are far too few people of such a character.

  20. dafna says:

    my sincere condolences for the loss,
    to you and steve both.

    • Cheri says:

      Thanks for including Steve, dafna.

      He loves history; Joe could provide the stimulation on just about any topic; if he didn’t know, he’d make up a convincing story.

  21. Cyberquill says:

    As per my calculations, Joe must have been 79 years old.

  22. Cheri says:

    Thank you (again)
    Yes, Peter, Joe was 79.

  23. Man of Roma says:

    The only thing I can say now is how Joe too – I think one can see it from the above picture – had this emotional intelligence which is superior from just intelligence – and which all of us probably wished we had – I haven’t in any case.

    I met you through Joe. First was Joe to capture me – Sicilians being totally different planet from Romans, believe me, but what a planet!. Then after Joe it was your turn to bewitch me Chearie.

    I’ll now read ALL posts you wrote in honour of your great mentor (as soon I finish darn Manius’ new chapter)

    Sincerely yours (literally?)



    • Cheri says:

      You encouraged me to write about Joe, interview him, and tell some of his stories.

      Grazia, Giovanni.

      P.S. I love the Italian spirit–lovable or grouchy, high or low–there is a life force, a real life force that I appreciate.

      Joe was irritable the last week of his life. It probably was his way of pushing those who were worried he was leaving (and rightly so) away.
      Leave it to Joe to go on the Ides of March. He was an accomplished Shakespeare scholar in his own right, not to mention Latin teacher.

      Et tu Brutus?

  24. Man of Roma says:

    Sincerely yours (literally?)

    Stole it somewhere from Richard’s: (not literally)

  25. Geraldine says:

    I’m sorry for your loss. I dread losing mine but the alternative, not to have a mentor, is unfathomable.
    Oh, what a patient and kind face. It must be one of your photos.

    • Cheri says:

      You are right, Geraldine, in your second sentence.

      Yes, I took this picture at the restaurant where we would meet every week for lunch and conversation. I snapped the shot two years ago when Joe looked so well and robust.

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