Joe wanted his 29th year to be the time when he would go public with his commitment to change the world. He wanted to be the congressman from South Dakota. From the start he believed a single voice could lift the weight of racism, poverty, and injustice from the shoulders of humanity. He would bring Bobby Kennedy’s ideology and Mother Teresa’s compassion along on his campaign. Politicking would be necessary for success, but Joe couldn’t quite get that part of the campaign started. He was too busy doing unto others. When he did give a political speech, he made sure that a sincere mention of God and love were part of it. His legacy is not those speeches, but his corporal works of mercy.
Take the hot day in July of 1999 when President Clinton came to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation offering hope. Joe was there as a member of U.S. Senator Tim Johnson’s staff, but his priority was giving his shoulder to Geraldine Bluebird, a 44-year old single mother of 10 mired in poverty. Hooked up to oxygen to help her breath, Bluebird listened to Clinton promise her a better world as Joe stood nearby, his eyes filled with tears. “I’ll never forget how important that trip was for him,” said Sharon Boysen, Johnson’s state field director. There was nothing showy about Joe. No press releases uttering hollow concerns. Anyone who knew him understood that, Johnson said.
“He was the most caring, loving person anyone could know. Instead of taking a vacation, he chose to sleep on the floor with poorest of the poor. Instead of buying a fancy car, he gave his spare money to the homeless on the streets of Sioux Falls. He went to nursing rooms to spend time with people life had forgotten,” Johnson said. “He truly and profoundly felt the pain of other folks,” said Drey Samuelson, Johnson’s top aide.
Sioux Falls friends who knew Joe, always dressed in black, will freeze the image of him just being a good guy, being the right arm for his friend Lucille Thu, the 80-year old matriarch of the Minnehaha County Democratic Party. He made sure she got where she needed to go. Joe wasn’t Catholic, but Bishop Robert Carlson recalls telling him, “If you were Catholic, you would make a great priest.” The reason was simple, Carlson said. “He was a young man with a great big heart.”
In preparation for the congressional race, Joe left Johnson’s staff and worked with the “Everybody Wins” literacy program that he had been active in while serving on Johnson’s staff in Washington. Then something unexplainable happened in November 1999. Joe decided not to run for office. He left Sioux Falls and went to spend time with his mother in Kansas City and then his father in Alexandria, VA. Friends in Sioux Falls missed him and worried about him because he told them he let them down. He shouldn’t have felt that way, said David Benson, a friend and student at Augustana College. “He lifted up everyone with his words and hopes for future,” Benson said.
On April 25, 2000, Johnson called his staff together to tell them about the winter of Joe’s life. A few hours after his 30th birthday, Joe took his life, a consequence of acute depression. Johnson said his staff wept. Despite their sadness, his friends knew that Joe made this world a better place.
Joe- the world would be an even better place with you in it.
(Adapted from an article by David Kranz in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, May 7, 2000)