What do you say about losing a best friend? What do you say about a man who was the inspiration behind three businesses that you run? I will tell you what you say, you actually ask a question, you ask,”What’s cookin?” “What’s cookin?” was one of the first phrases that endeared me to Joe Gallagher. I gathered this phrase and other pertinent information on Joe from his 1965 psychological examination report. Even despite his Down Syndrome, Joe probably needed this examination for his MCBMRDD files. Apparently, the psychologist was asking Joe a series of questions on a December morning in 1965, and Joe’s response to many of those questions was ,”What’s Cooking?” Ah, Joe. Misunderstood yet again. Knowing Joe, he was probably looking past the psychologist at the pretty receptionist or secretary, and was asking her, “What’s cooking?”
I started ISLE in 1998 because Joe needed somewhere to live. I started Golden String in 1999 because Joe needed tickets to Indians games and a vacation. My wife Jill and I started the Purple Cat to offer Joe another choice in his day programming and work.
Now that’s he’s in heaven, and he most certainly is in heaven, there is a giant chasm in my world. I used Joe as my example in teaching and training staff, my barometer for almost all client decisions, my measuring stick for Christmas shopping. Joe is part of my tradition at every holiday. I was blessed enough to share many holidays with him; go to Florida with him, attend many of his familiy’s parties and picnics, drink beer with him, ride roller coasters with him, camp with him, cook with him, rake leaves with him, iron with him, and sleep right next to him. Heck, Jill and I even took Joe Gallagher to the St. Charles’ festival for our first date.
Joe has given me more than I ever gave him. He has taught me a lesson that permeates my life and hopefully all of my decision making. That lesson is what I call, “recognition of humanity”. With Joe, especially late in his life, he didn’t hear very well or towards the very end, speak very much. I constantly had to observe and wonder why he reacted or did certain things. He taught me to observe very well and to do so in a slow manner. After all, Joe observed much and did so at his own slow pace. He had a gentile touch and smile. He was always looking to give a hug or meet someone new. He recognized the human spirit in others; he was a master of appealing to the humanity of us all. He sought out people who lived on the fringes of society. I think it was because he was a self-proclaimed, “Good Catholic” and a “Good Semaritan”. Because of Joe, I look at people in a different way. At the grocery store or the post office,I study the people around me. I sometimes recognize their happiness or sorrow in the simplest of facial expressions. I marvel at their little kindnesses to one another. I wonder about their lives.
About five years ago, Joe and I would play a little “hooky” and skip out from work. He, from Masco, and me, from ISLE. I would let him sleep in a bit and then pick him up from Center Street. We would go to a place on Youngstown-Poland Road, named Vic and Syl’s. It was an old Burger Chef turned Hardies turned Vic and Syl’s. A run down diner with very nice folks running it. That’s why we went. We liked the ladies behind the counter. Joe really liked the ladies behind the counter. He was quite philanthropic with his hugs. On this one particular morning, Joe was not interested in his hugs. When I went up to the counter to place our order, I discovered that Joe had slipped away. I went into the dining area and found Joe sitting a booth with a man I had never seen before. He was huge. Very overweight and tall. He had a full head of greasy, silver, curly hair. He was wearing soiled, ripped sweat pants and a soiled, tight, white undershirt, a ring of sweat creating a semicircle under his neck. I became nervous and briskly walked over to their booth. Joe was smiling and nodding his head up and down. I could easily tell that Joe was so proud to be sitting with this man. I quickly extended my hand and introduced myself to the stranger. His response was, “where did you ever get this guy?” and pointed to Joe. The stranger went on to say that Joe was the nicest guy that he ever met and that he was really special”. I sat and talked to the man and Joe for quite some time. It turns out that he was quite educated and spoke with a strong vocabulary. Joe offered him my breakfast sandwich and he the man ate it. The three of us sat and drank coffee for about an hour. We talked and just enjoyed each other’s company. After finishing his second cup of coffee, the man got up and thanked us. Again, he spoke of how important Joe was and how singularly special he was. He walked away smiling. Joe smiled during the entire conversation. Joe was so kind to someone who was very easily dismissed by most. This encounter immediately reminds me of Matthew 25:40: “ Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” I think that helping this man at Vic and Syl’s was a test for me. A test I would have failed if it were not for Joe. He tethered me to God. I think that Joe was closer to God than most of us.
In my mind’s eye, I see myself at my most serene and happiest, sleeping in a twin bed next to Joe upstairs at Center Street. TV Land playing on the old 13 inch solid state TV that Chella gave Joe. Lying there at daybreak with the theme from “All in the Family” playing low. The early sun fighting through the venetian blinds, exposing Joe. He always slept on his side in the fetal position, but in this particular memory, Joe is not sleeping, but lying there, eyes wide open, smiling at me. Joe, I miss you and will look for you in everyone I meet. You are a one-of-a-kind. I hope I gave you some freedoms, Joe. I hope you are happy with me.
Joe died this past week, it is true, but as the author James Thurber once said, “After straight-arming the death angel for some time”. He fought hard against the pneumonia like he fought hard to pump his little legs and square feet, propelling his three wheeled bike up Whetmore Hill near his home. And in death, he still wins. He now sits really close to Jesus with his beloved “Mommy” and “Daddy”, two people he has not seen in over fifty years close by.
Please do me a favor: When you think about Joe, think about his smile, his mischief, his kindness. Remind yourself to do something for someone in need. For the spirit of Joe Gallagher is one of giving. He gave to me and to the people whose lives he touched, so much. He was a true inspiration. And inspiration can strike in many ways. Sometime try the Joe Gallagher style. Just walk up to someone and ask, “What’s Cookin?” You may be surprised to see what’s on their stove.