Mon, Feb 8, 2010
“I found my lost sheep,” the letter began.
I recognized the curly cursive and oversized periods. The return address label was classic Joe Pexa — a remnant of a bygone era: a Norman Rockwell image of a boy, a girl, a dog and a white-picket fence.
It was written last June to invite me to his 100th birthday party on Dec. 19. The note fell into a drawer and out of my mind.
In October, Joe’s daughter-in-law Margie e-mailed me. “I know you’re busy,” she wrote, “and if the letter got misplaced we certainly understand.”
Such an invitation, of course, cannot be disregarded, and I was embarrassed by my delay. I fled to my stationery bin and picked out a Mary Engelbreit card picturing a bespectacled redhead and an Abe Lincoln quote: “It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
“You’ve had a lot of years and a lot of life,” I wrote. And yes, I would love to come.
It was Margie who first connected Joe and me five years ago. She wrote to The Catholic Spirit suggesting a story about her active soon-to-be 95-year-old father-in-law, so I drove down to New Prague and into Joe’s warm embrace — his sparkling eyes, quick laugh and sharp memory.
He talked about farming and carpentry, about the thrill of getting electricity in 1938 and, nine years later, a tractor. He raved about St. Wenceslaus’ choir director. He recounted the morning stretches that keep his limbs from getting rusty and his morning weigh-in.
“If I’m up a couple of pounds, I’ll eat less that day,” he said.
There was a sturdiness to his unvarnished wisdom — old-school common sense for complicated times.
“I believe that so much is to keep your mind and body occupied,” Joe said. And he did: playing the card game Sheephead at the Main Street pub each morning, making booya for the Knights of Columbus each fall, bringing Communion to the homebound — all the makings of what megapastor Rick Warren would call a “purpose-driven life.”
A quiet gratitude bubbled just beneath Joe’s humor.
“I thank God,” he told me, “not once a day, at least 10 times a day.” There was also a child-like awe. “I just wonder if there can be more [technological] changes, but they tell me there will be more.”
My profile of Joe was published on Dec. 16, 2004. It ran above an ad honoring local Bishop Frederick Campbell, newly appointed to Columbus, Ohio.
Reviewing the archive got me thinking about all that has happened in these past five years.
We have a new pope, a new president and a new archbishop. Between Joe and me, some pillars of our lives have flip-flopped.
He lost his spouse; I have gained one.
He sold his house and moved into an apartment; I’ve moved out of an apartment and bought a house.
Even the details seem reversed: Joe stopped sending out Christmas cards and decking his halls, while I started.
It’s much easier to process five years than 100. In a century, Joe has witnessed 18 presidents and nine popes, four new U.S. states, two world wars and six moon landings. He’s buried a son, a wife and a grandson. At their graves he searched his soul. “It should’ve been me,” he said.
“No!” a grandson protested. “You’re our teacher, and we’re slow learners, so we still need you here.”
His lessons abound. Joe taught his family how to play cards and how to catch fish, how to speak Czech and how to make booya. He taught them how to tell stories and how to listen, how to make friends and how to keep them, how to build houses and how to build homes.
Joe no longer drives or does woodwork, but he’s maintained many hobbies, making booya, playing Sheephead and attending Sunday Mass.
Now when he hobbles into St. Wenceslaus with his cane, parents whisper to their children, “That man is 100 years old!” and their eyes widen. He is as much a part of the church’s history as the columns and crosses and bricks.
But Joe is not preparing to die. He is planning to live — and acting accordingly. At 94, he bought a button accordion he has taught himself to play. At 95, he bought a new Chevy.
From ER to K of C Hall
Perhaps we should have guessed a party so widely anticipated could, in the final days, threaten to veer off course.
Joe was brought to the emergency room Dec. 13 for fluid retention linked to a heart problem complicated by pneumonia. He spent the week there but made progress and got a leave for his party. Hundreds of friends and relatives piled into New Prague’s Knights of Columbus Hall to celebrate the released centenarian.
Joe looked thinner, but I recognized his expressive eyes and the playful tilt of his eyebrows. At 100, he’s not too wrinkled and he still has a few dark streaks in his hair.
He greeted guests affectionately, holding their hands and leaning into their stories. At one point, waiting for a picture to be taken, Joe engaged a young boy at his side by bobbing his shoulders to the live polka music. The whimsical beat bridged their nine-decade gap.
When my turn came, Joe pulled me in to a great big hug. “All my friends are here,” he said.
Joe’s beloved St. Wenceslaus choir surprised him by leading the group in “Happy Birthday.” It was a somber moment for him. He looked off at a vague midpoint, misty eyed, mouth ajar.
Then a grandson handed Joe a microphone. “You wouldn’t believe what this means to me,” he said, choking up, then pausing.
“It just happens that I ran into a bad week,” he continued.
The crowd chuckled.
“It kind of swept me out a little bit. But you know Joe Pexa, he’s a fighter.” He made a fist and pumped it into the air, eliciting hoots and hollers and raised Budweisers.
“So I’m going to be around for a few years, and we’ll have more fun.”
It was a brilliant chance to see the expansiveness of a 100-year-old heart: the tenderness and feistiness, the strength and vulnerability. Joe has absorbed many divine graces, and we are all blessed by their ripple effect.
The passage of time tends to feel microscopic, and then, in a moment like this, standing beside roast beef and baked beans, it can be seismic: A century, passed, and a man here in our midst giving testament to each year, tying us to the past and bolstering our dreams for long, happy futures of our own.
Maybe Joe’s secret lies in the polka, translated from the Czech word “pulka,” or “little half,” a reference to the short half-steps in the dance: How far and how fast a bunch of half-steps can carry you when you’re having too much fun to count!