My Father-in-Law, Joe, The Mayor of Barclay Street

Sunday, June 28, 2020
At his wake he was referred to as the Mayor of Barclay Street and though that was a well-deserved title, he was that and so much more.

Joe Welter was my father-in-law.  He was a no-nonsense kind of guy who preferred to live his life without frills, without fanfare and without fuss.  And he did so because Joe wasn't the kind of guy that lived by the beat of anyone's drum but his own.  I would learn that for the first time when we were planning our wedding and Joe told us he would not be wearing a tux like the other men in the wedding party - he'd be wearing a suit, his suit, and his own shoes.  He didn't care about tradition or tuxes or fancy weddings either for that matter.  Not that it mattered to Joe, but even without a matching tux,  he still looked dapper in the wedding photos and probably no one really noticed he wasn't in wardrobe compliance.

A couple years later when we were about to welcome our first born into the world, Joe once again displayed his non-conformist style when he told us we didn't need a crib and said a dresser drawer would do just fine.  I'm pretty sure he was not kidding but we made sure we had a crib anyway.  I suppose that growing up in a family of 9 children in the early 1900's, it wasn't that unusual for a baby to sleep in a drawer.  Still, Joe learned to overlook what probably felt like frivolity to him, probably thanks to my mother-in-law who was the model non-interfering mother-in-law.

Joe was a WWII veteran having served in the signal corp.  He had a serious interest in ham and citizen band radios and thought nothing of climbing a ladder higher than the second floor to adjust his antennas.  Joe was a member of the Labor Union for 50 years and worked as a labor foreman for Sano-Rubin.  He was skilled in many trades and could fix almost anything - in his house or someone else's.  When I got into tole painting, Joe graciously cut wood in all shapes and sizes for me to paint.  He also made countless lawn ornaments and gave them away to his family members.

Joe was also a passionate and skilled gardener.  He would start his vegetable seeds in the basement under grow lights in February or March and by the time it was warm enough to plant, his 'babies' were large, sturdy plants.  By mid summer, his tomato plants were the size of shrubs, almost as tall as me. Although he lived in the city, he used his over-sized lot to cultivate a large garden that would produce enough vegetables to supply a small army.  He'd share his produce with neighbors and family because, as I realize now, that was always his intention.  He wasn't just getting rid of extras, he was growing that much so he could share with beans, wax beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, rhubarb.  My girls have fond recollections of going out to the garden to pick wax beans, or butter beans as he called them.

In addition to feeding his neighbors from his garden, Joe was always there for them, to listen, to share a joke, to help with a fix-it job.  He was a social butterfly, unlike his quiet, introvert wife.  Joe knew everyone and everyone who knew him loved him, especially the neighborhood dogs.  You see, Joe had a 'uniform'.  In the summer it was a white t-shirt and navy Dickies or jeans and in the winter it was a flannel shirt and jeans.  Sometimes those t-shirts had worn thin and were distressed around the neckline, but he loved them anyway - even though he probably had at least a package or two of new ones in his dresser drawer.  His jeans or navy Dickies had pockets that were never without a dog biscuit or two.  Joe didn't just visit the neighbors on his daily walks, he would visit the neighborhood dogs and every dog waited expectantly for Joe's treats.  As you might imagine, Joe had a special way with the canine club and dogs understood and appreciated his love language.  When we had our Sheltie, Bailey would sit at attention at Joe's feet patiently waiting for Joe to give up the biscuit.  Biscuit or not, Bailey adored Joe just like all of his canine counterparts.

His love of animals didn't end there.  Joe also loved cats and had a number of grey cats over the years, all named Smokey.  At one time he took in a beautiful stray cat who, in short measure, produced a little of kittens.  Joe loved and nurtured those kittens and their mama.  Just before it was time to adopt them out (one of which was reserved for us) he took them to the veterinarian for a wellness check.  It turned out they all tested positive for feline leukemia and had to be euthanized.  That hurt Joe hard.

When Joe wasn't tending to his vegetables or helping others, you might find him repairing an old,  discarded piece of machinery.  It might be a lawnmower, snowblower or other piece of equipment left on the curb in someone's trash.  Joe would bring the piece home and tinker with it, often bringing it back to life.  He'd then pass it on to someone in need.  During his daily walks to get his newspaper, Joe would often spot discarded furniture.  It might be a table or chair, a china cabinet or coffee table.  Returning with his truck, Joe would rescue the orphaned piece and take it home where he'd strip old coats of paint, mend broken parts and refinish the piece before finally re-homing it, usually to some lucky family member.  He even rescued a bicycle from the trash and brought it back to life, complete with a coat of neon orange paint and a banana seat for his granddaughter.

He wasn't big on pomp and circumstance, holidays or fanfare.  Like my own dad, Joe always proclaimed he didn't care for Christmas.  My mother-in-law however loved tradition and at Christmas we'd gather in their tiny living room, elbow to elbow, opening presents.  Her tradition was to have the youngest open a present first, followed by the next oldest, then the next, each taking their respective turn opening, starting over round after round until all the presents were opened.  My father-in-law, who pretended to tolerate this process would comply for the first round, maybe even round 2, but soon we'd find him shaking gifts, or opening one end of a package until eventually he would be opening all his presents, completely out of turn.  He was always delighted when his packages contained a new cap, some type of food item (preferably sweets or nuts) or something practical like gloves or warm socks.  He also loved model cars and had quite a collection that he had built or received as gifts.  And occasionally someone got him something that really tickled his fancy.....

Joe was a family man who made time for visits and help as needed.  Every Saturday morning, Joe would go 'across the river' to visit family....first his mom, then his siblings, nieces and nephews, etc... Normally it is the woman of the house that keeps in touch with family, but in the Welter household it was Joe.  Joe spent hours on the phone calling to check up on and catch up with folks.  He was a talker and Joe wasn't one to worry about political correctness.  You always knew where you stood with Joe, always knew what he thought about things because he wasn't going to mince words or put on airs to impress people.  He said how he felt and if Joe wasn't a fan, you knew it.  Joe knew what he liked and what he didn't.  He liked a cold beer at the end of the day and a small dish of peanuts or Cheez-its to snack on. He loved cookies, a good reuben sandwich or a Fishamajig from Friendly's. Ketchup on the dinner table was a must - even on an Easter ham.  Pickles were also a staple in Joe's diet.  He made a mean bread pudding and amazing potato salad.  Joe was a prankster who always got a big kick out of sitting on a whoopie cushion or kicking out his false teeth....always getting the desired reaction from his grandkids.  Joe had a romantic side and didn't miss an opportunity to remember his wife on special occasions.  My mother-in-law, Ann, could count on him to remember special holidays and he didn't diverge far from his short list of 'go-to' gifts.... her favorite chocolates, a bouquet of flowers and since her birthday was in June, a hanging basket was tradition.  Joe and Ann were married for 59 years.  Here they are on their wedding day and their 50th wedding their dining room with their immediate family, just as they preferred it.

 Although he loved his granddaughters, he wouldn't sit through dance recitals or church services or graduations, but he made an exception for weddings even though we all knew dressing in a monkey suit for such occasions wasn't really his thing.  Joe may have been strong in his convictions but ultimately his heart was always on others.  One of my favorite memories I have of Joe was cutting his hair.  It was during those precious moments....just him and I in the kitchen conversing while I cut....those were the times I'll cherish.

This photo of Joe sitting behind my two nearly 100 year old great aunts at Laura's wedding is such a great example of what an imp he was, always the charmer trying to get a rise out of you.
We always knew how much Joe loved others, but it wasn't until his wake that we realized how much he was loved by so many.  A long line of visitors came to pay their respects to Joe and all those who knew him had a story to share and that story almost always involved a way he'd helped, stories he'd shared or just the joy he brought to those whose lives he touched, some on a daily basis.  It was at his wake that I learned (as I think everyone in the family did) that Joe was referred to by the neighbors as the Mayor of Barclay Street.  Joe lived the kind of life we should all aspire to live - a life that leaves a legacy, a life that brings joy to others, a life that is lived genuinely from the heart, a life that is about having your own convictions while still respecting and loving those whose beliefs may not be exactly like your own.  Joe suffered from Alzheimer's the last few years of his life and ultimately passed away from a sudden, massive stroke in 2008, the same year my dad passed away.  I wish our grandchildren could have known him and I know he would have loved them.  But his legacy will live on in photos and stories and in the values and caring ways that rubbed off on his son, their Grandpa.  He may have been the Mayor of Barclay Street, but to me he'll always be smiling Joe Welter.

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