Joe could have been the protagonist in a Saul Bellow novel. He was a Jewish intellectual who deeply cared about his people and his community. He worked throughout his entire career to make our world a better place. Thousands of children had healthier and more fulfilling lives because of him. Yet Joe was more than a dedicated professional. Joe achieved fame as a social worker, agency executive, teacher, children’s advocate, violinist, athlete, poet, play write and essayist. He was a wonderful husband to Gerry for sixty-four years and an exemplary father to Barbie, John, Paul and Claudette, a proud grandfather to Daniel and Ethan, and a dear friend to so many of us. Above all, he was an astute observer of the human condition. He found people to be endlessly fascinating. He wrote in 1985, “But to know what life will be like in the 21st century! To know if there will be a cure for cancer, if man will live in space and if new songs will ever sing again. To know how high and how low women’s skirts will go and who the sex symbols will be. What will be the outcome in South Africa? Will the Mafia ever be wiped out? Will a Super Bowl game ever live up to its promise? And how will history treat President Ronald Reagan?”
Fortunately, Joe was able to live twenty-five years longer and at least learn what happened in South Africa.
- Yosef ben Moshe v’Batya
A Unique Man (excerpt)
Joe was incredibly prescient. At a time when adoption was only for babies, Joe believed that some of the children in foster care—those who were older, those who had emotional problems or physically disabilities—could be adopted if only people knew about them.
In fact, in the late 70’s, there was Allison, a little girl born with Down syndrome. Her parents were an attorney and his wife who didn’t think they could take care of her. And that was a time when children with Down syndrome were not cared for at home; they went to institutions. But these parents wondered whether anyone would want to adopt Allison. They called 13 agencies, and only Joe Taylor said he would try. It took three years, but his agency finally found a home for Allison with a single woman in West Virginia. The woman was a lesbian, another first for Joe. Fifteen years later, Allison returned to a dinner in Philadelphia where she told an audience of 300—I want to thank all of you because without you I wouldn’t have a family. The room was so quiet you could hear a handkerchief fold. This is an example of the kind of thing Joe did.
Those of you who knew Joe and Gerry know that they had an incredible love affair throughout their lives. This is what he once wrote about it when he was in his 70’s.
"Walking along the streets of my city, many pretty young women pass my way—and they do not even see me. The subliminal recognition that I am too old for them erases me from view.
But suppose the young women who pass me today knew that I once bought a camellia corsage for a girl, that we rode in the rumble seat of a 1929 Ford and that I ate apples from a tree near school to save lunch money for the date? But there are better reasons why the next girl who passes should look at me. I know something she does not know.
I could tell her that one day the most exciting dream of her life will come true. In the dream, she is riding the most beautiful horse in the world. It is running faster than any horse has ever run. She is ecstatic and believes the ride will last forever. But when the dream comes true, she finds that the horse, so dazzling at first, is a poor finisher. The horse begins to falter and limp. The road that was so smooth suddenly becomes a steeplechase with obstacles. She can quit the trip in disgust—about half the other riders who have this dream quit—or she can learn the ways to make the horse stronger and finish the trip. The new pace will not be as breathtaking. Its joys will be more solid than soaring, but on the trip she will find deep affection and warm companionship. Actually, what she will find is love."
On Love and Marriage (excerpt)
Thankfully Joe left his remarkable memoirs so that we can celebrate his thoughts quoting selections using some of his own words.
Joe’s love for Gerry (quotes from My Five Careers)
"At the start of my second year of internship 1939, I was walking behind Gerry in an office corridor. She had beautiful legs. My hormones were working. I whistled at her. She turned around, instinctively. I said, “Nice girls don't turn around when a guy whistles.” As I recall, she did not reply directly to my remark, but we fell in step and chatted as we walked. I am certain my recall is correct, because I'm certain there is no man alive who does not remember vividly the beginning (and the pick-up line) of what becomes a life-long love.”
“I also remember vividly our first kiss and where it occurred. It was a Sunday afternoon in summer. We had gone for a drive along Lake Erie. Gerry stopped at a picturesque spot and we were looking out at the water. We have enduring fantasies about a first kiss, then it just happens and we cannot remember exactly. I was now happily in love!”
Joe’s life was indeed warm and rich because of his consciousness of loving and being loved.
- Madalaine Pugliese
Playing Tennis with the Net Down (excerpt)
At the start of his short essay, “Life as a Spectator Sport”, Joe wrote: “When I retired from my working life at seventy, it felt like I was playing tennis with the net down.” Joe relished the freedom of no rules or expectations throughout his retirement, which lasted over twenty years. A sentence later he says, “(at 90) now there isn’t even a net….and living may soon become a spectator sport”. It’s remarkable to think that Joe Taylor ever worried about being merely a spectator. Like his wife, Gerry, Joe was an engaged, thinking, active citizen, with a kaleidoscope of interests and a surge of energy for the things he cared most deeply about.
In real life Joe was quite a tennis player. He was the number one singles player on the tennis varsity team at Drew University for four years in a row. Of course in his essay, Life as a Spectator Sport, Joe used tennis and the net as metaphors for how strong a player one is at the game of life. So let’s look at his life as a writer. Joe worked at the craft of writing over many years. He wrote essays, short stories, poems, a one-act play, and professional articles. He shared with me drafts of whatever he was working on, and I sometimes did the same. Many of us here heard him read what may be his most successful essay, called Love and Marriage, at the Athenaeum a few years ago.
And now we circle back to Joe’s concern that he might end up just a spectator in his late 80s and 90s. Joe’s dedication to working on his own writing not only set a fine example of someone actively engaged with life, it also helped tie me to the writing world during a time when I was unable to write much myself. He learned to use a computer, wrote at his desk many mornings, and as you will hear about shortly, and probably already knew, he kept a blog.
Probably the most enjoyable evening we ever spent took place almost exactly a year ago today, when we attended Salem’s second annual literary festival. We had a small bite to eat upstairs at the Hawthorne and then moved downstairs for the actual reading. Joe sat up front, soaking in the evening.
A photographer for the Salem Gazette took a classic picture of him: he’s nattily dressed, arms crossed, listening intently. Joe was not a passive listener that night, he was a member of the profession, a writer. At the end of the evening he inquired of the organizers whether he might give a reading there when his book came out. He was still in the game, still a strong player, and he was winning.
- Jean Monahan
The Journey of Joe's Memoirs (excerpt)
As I begin I can hear Joe suggesting I open with a powerful first line, so there you have it. When Joe Taylor invited me to tea the day after he bought one of my paintings at an opening in Salem, I had no idea with whom I was meeting. He seemed like a nice elderly man and he was, but within moments of sitting down I became quite aware of his quizzical and analytical nature. He seemed to almost interview me, and I happily answered all of his questions. Here and there, he told me a little about himself, how he recently had lost his wife, how his daughter Barb helped him enjoy his life as a writer by getting him around to give readings from his book Out of My Mind. Joe sent me home with an autographed copy. I thought that was nice.
About a year later, Joe surprised me with a phone call. He asked if I would consider collaborating with him to produce cartoons for which he would send me gag lines and descriptions that I would fulfill with illustrations. I was curious and agreed to review some of his ideas. That was the first of many ideas Joe proposed and shortly afterward I received the first manila envelope filled with pages of ideas for cartoons. Joe later explained he had developed the desire to cartoon 20 years earlier, it just took him awhile to find someone to do the drawing. At first it seemed like just a little fun to me, but from the outset, it was all business to Joe.
Every time Joe sent an envelope he would follow up with a call and ask what I thought. One day I commented that he seemed to send a lot of cartoons in which an older man was wining and dining a younger woman. He replied, “My dear, I am 93 years old. Everyone I have dinner or lunch with is younger than me.” It wasn’t until then that I realized the cartoons were reflecting his actual life. Somewhere along the way, I told Joe I thought Out of My Mind should be available on Amazon. I truly believed everyone should be able to enjoy his wisdom, that the essay Love and Marriage in particular, should be read at every wedding, and if a couple did not want to read it, they should not get married.
That’s when I was privileged to see what a powerhouse Joe Taylor was -- that behind his nice elderly appearance was a man who not only could not resist picking up a challenge, but constantly created them and won as he matched wit with wisdom to make it happen. Within days Joe asked me about self-publishing and set about going through the process. Shortly afterward Joe stunned me when he called to report his progress. He had no intention of simply republishing his first collection of writings, he was producing his memoir with the added intention of fleshing out and backing up data about what it takes to maintain mental acuity in a long life.
In his memoir Joe begins with the words, “I write this story because I have something to say”, and cites “chance and the intrusion of the random that simply happens” as a significant element in his life, writing, “We cannot avoid these unplanned interventions. The best we can do is use them to our personal advantage by incorporating them meaningfully into our lives. We are the one’s who create purpose.” Joe Taylor lived that so fully. He taught it in everything he did whether he was giving meaning to some chance or random intrusion in his own life or himself being a chance for everyone who knew him to enjoy more meaning in our own lives.
- Pic Michel
The Miracle of Joe (excerpt)
Joe’s entire modus operandi was to make every day productive and full of reasons to live. He constantly planned new projects, lectures or entries for writing contests. He kept up with his friends, by phone and in person. He read voraciously, and attended operas and concerts whenever possible.
If you were a friend of Joe's, you did NOT talk about the weather. Oh no. Be it music, literature, poetry, sports, philosophy, or politics -- Joe could converse in great depth, and would always have a joke or a quote or two from notables in that field.
Joe was a self-declared ‘pusher’ – but it was entirely legal. He MADE himself get out every day even though often he’d rather not; he MADE himself practice the violin every day or else he was wracked with guilt; he MADE himself do the regimen of exercises prescribed by his physical therapist; he MADE himself finish his memoirs. They were officially ready to the public on the day he died.
How many, at age 94, could still say there were still so many things they wanted to do and to contribute? We were planning a book-signing for his memoirs; Joe and Pic were planning another book -- this one was to be entirely of New Yorker-style cartoons; Joe wanted Oprah to read his book and fly him to Chicago on her private jet for an appearance on her show.
Those of us speaking here today are drawing upon my father’s own words to remember him. Altho it does seem like the easy way out, the truth is that nobody COULD ever say it quite like Joe.
In his Life as a Spectator Sport he wrote:
I would like to live long enough to know if there will be a cure for cancer; if there is life on other planets; if terrorism will be wiped out; how history will treat George W. Bush; how high and how low women’s skirts will go; and if songs will ever sing again. I’d like to be around when the limits to the universe are discovered and when physicists report that they have found the tiniest bit of invisible matter that can possibly exist. Will Social Security be saved and will science learn how memory works? There, from the cosmic to the comic, from the crises of life to its circuses, are reasons enough to be affectionately attached to living – and living – and living.
Some of you have told me that unrealistically, you somehow thought Joe would always be around. Unrealistically, I did too. It was just too hard to imagine a world without that force of nature. But Joe did leave his memoirs and writings and thru the energy, insight, wisdom, intellect, humor, and joie de vie contained within , Joe WILL go on living --and living--and living.
In his memoirs Joe says:
My story is both gratifying and scary in terms of the random. We come to life through the most fortuitous of events. If I had been conceived a day sooner or a day later - or even in a different minute or hour of the day of my conception - I, the person I am, would not be on this earth, for there is no chance that the same sperm and egg would meet again. That observation is humbling. I am an accident.
I received an email from someone who had never met Joe but had read his blog. In her message she said she wondered if it was truly an accident that he was conceived or more of a miracle. I think we all KNOW it was a miracle.
- Barbara Taylor & John Hermanski