Papa Joe Prattico
A dear friend of mine passed away Thursday. His name was Joe Prattico. He was 79 years old, and undoubtedly the face of my church. Everyone who loved him, and that was everyone, called him “The Pa”, or “Papa Joe.” He was like a grandfather or father to so many. He was the nicest man you would ever want to know, and that is an understatement. He loved Jesus and loved people. The following is my thoughts and memories of the man. I hope whether you knew him or not this will paint a clearer picture of who he was; and through his legacy, who he will always be.
60 Years of Marriage
On December 27th 2011, Joseph Prattico celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary with his beloved wife, Carolyn, whom he so endearingly called “Goldie.” If you want to see a prototypical example of true love in marriage in a day and age where that notion is so frivolously disposed of so easily after the vows, look no further than Joe and Carolyn’s marriage.
That night, there was a party with his family and closest friends to celebrate. In his customary suit, (Papa Joe was the tannest, fittest, and snappiest dresser you have ever seen for a man in his 70’s.), he told his family how much he loved them. When he got home, before he had even changed out of his suit, Papa Joe fell down the stairs………
“There’s No Reason to Fight”
When I got engaged I remember wanting get Papa Joe’s advice on marriage more than anyone else’s. The first question I asked him was, “How do you handle a fight?” He looked at me and said,” I don’t know, we have never got in a fight,” throwing his hands up deftly as he spoke. I said, “You guys haven’t fought in 60 years?” to which he quipped back, “disagreements sure, but no fights. There’s no reason to fight.”
The way Papa Joe said it was not in the slight bit elitist. He said it in a way which seemed like the norm; as if he could not fathom why you would ever “fight” with someone you loved with all your heart.
The Only Man You Wanted Kissing Your Significant Other
Papa Joe’s trademark to the ladies was his kiss. He often ushered at church and was the first person you would see walking into the church halls. True to his Italian heritage, for over a quarter century Papa Joe would welcome the woman of Joy Community in with a kiss on the cheek. It was his trademark and one of the things so many ladies looked forward to upon entering the church.
A few years back I spoke with a young lady who had just began coming to our church a few months before. I asked her what brought her to our church. She said it was random; that she had just seen it driving by. Then I asked her what kept her coming back. She told me, “It was that Papa Joe guy’s kisses.”
The last time I saw him he kissed my fiancée Melissa on the cheek, then later went out of his way during service to come kiss her ring. Even before I knew it was the last time I would ever see him, I was thinking what a blessing it was to watch Papa Joe give his seal of approval and affirmation on our marriage with his trademark show of sincerity.
Not many near 80 year olds could pull off joining Facebook and commenting on ‘20 something’s’ posts like Papa Joe did. Over the past few years he was evident on the social networking site with his uplifting words of encouragement, which always ended in “blessings-Papa Joe.”
I believe he was probably on the site to keep up with everyone whom he had watched grow up since they were babies. He loved every one of us like his own kin. Papa Joe and Carolyn would start every day by going through the church directory and praying for EVERY person in it. Over the years, many have come and gone through the church, but I presume Papa Joe has never stopped thinking and praying for them. I would bet that Facebook was a place where he could see the people he loved so much and speak the love of the Lord over there life.
I found it interesting that most of his writings on Facebook were in all caps. He was so softly spoken in real life and I would love to know his thinking behind the caps on Facebook. I would be willing to say it had something to do with the fact so much of his warmth was displayed through a smile or a physical touch in person, that online the only way he could get across his passion for the people’s lives in which he was typing to was by making it louder with the cap-locks on. He will certainly be missed on Facebook. He will be missed everywhere.
I had two incidents in my life where Papa Joe and I were able to really connect beyond his wrist shaking handshakes. In 1996, I was 16 and the self proclaimed biggest Yankee’s fan in the world. Papa Joe was also the self proclaimed biggest Yankees fan in the world. We used to have Wednesday and Sunday night meetings at church then and twice a week Joe would come up to me and talk about the Yankees. “Did you see the game today? Did the Yanks play this afternoon? How about them Yanks? ” He would always call them, “The Yanks.”
That year the Yankees won the World Series for the first time since before I was born. Moments after they won, Papa Joe and Carolyn called in the way so many of you have been lucky enough to hear from them over the years; with two phones; as a tandem. We congratulated each other on the season and the championship as Mrs. Prattico also commented on how fast Joe Girardi ran and how he was super fast for a catcher.
In the last 15 years Papa Joe has talked to me about the Yanks almost every time we have spoken for any duration of time. The problem was that in the year 2000 I stopped loving the team of my childhood for various reasons.
One time in the early 2000’s, upon inquiring what I thought about the upcoming season, I told Papa Joe I didn’t like the Yankees anymore. He gave me a baffled look, paused for a moment, and said “What do you mean you don’t like the Yanks anymore?” I explained to him my lament and he seemed to loosely grasp it, although he still seemed perplexed.
As the next few years went on Papa Joe continued asking me about the Yanks when he saw me. He had refused to accept my decision to abandon them. I decided for the sake of Papa Joe’s and my ‘Yank’s’ bond, I would be a Yankee fan again whenever he brought them up. After that one time, he never heard a word of Yankee disapproval out of my mouth again.
The 2 Hour Standing Conversation
In April of 2008 I had my longest talk with Papa Joe. At the Men’s retreat in Geneva we got a chance to speak one-on-one for awhile, standing in the conference room. He at 75 years and 11 months of age and me at 27 years and 8 months of age, stood there and talked for about two hours. As we stood there I remember getting tired and looking for anything to lean on, but not wanting to suggest we sit down to save my juvenescence pride.
As I was teetering back and forth well into the 2nd hour, this man stood tall and square, never wavering or looking for a chair to even lean on, no less sit on. He never took his eyes of me as I or he spoke. I had gazed at the cookies on the table behind his left shoulder at least a half a dozen times during our talk. The man was about people… the man was for people.
What I will take out of our two plus hour talk were these two things. I remember him talking more than asking questions. He rarely deferred the attention away from him getting to know you. I remember asking him question after question about himself and him gladly answering. It was refreshing to hear him converse about himself for once. He even seemed comfortable doing so.
The most striking thing he told me was thrown in so nonchalantly and unpretentiously that you would have thought he was quipping about the weather forecast. Somehow I had asked him how he started going to New Jerusalem (now Joy Community) Church. He then told me that for years he had tried to convince one of his best friends, Al Gerhardt to come to church. I said, “Years?” And he said “Yes. Al was a bit stubborn about stuff like that back then.” He said eventually he was able to convince Al to come to church.
He told me from that, a group of couples began a church out of their houses and eventually they started, New Jerusalem Church. Pastor Al Gerhardt was later Pastor of New Jerusalem Church and remained so for twenty years.
Papa Joe humbly described to me the fact that he and a few friends started this church. I remember so clearly saying to him, “Wait a minute, you are the reason we are all here???!!!!”, and Joe saying, “Well, it was the Lord really.”
I’m not sure if most of the new people in our church are aware of it or not, but Papa Joe’s relentless outpouring of his love for Jesus Christ and his desire to see his friends and loved ones come to Christ is the reason we all worship at the corner of Bay and Goodman. I shudder to think how different my life would be without that church. My best friends, my schooling, my second family, support systems, and so much of my social life, have all been spawns of Joy Community. And all along unbeknownst to me, Joe Prattico, was one of the people to thank.
“What Would Papa Joe do?”
I hope this doesn’t sound sacrilegious to any of you, but a few years ago I had come to my mom with a problem and told her how I poorly handled it and she said one of the most comically profound things anyone has ever told me. Instead of giving me advice or delving into the problem, she simply said, “What would Papa Joe do?”
The funny thing is that any other name replacing Jesus in that famous catchphrase (What Would Jesus Do?) would be seemingly absurd and feel like grounds for instant lightning strike. But the Bible instructs us to be like Jesus, and you could search the world up and down until you can’t search any longer and you would be hard pressed to find a man in the flesh who reminded you more of Jesus than Joe Prattico. The catchphrase stuck and I can honestly say that in times over the past few years when I was struggling to maintain my composure, I quietly whispered to myself, “What would Papa Joe do?”
“Papa Joe knew”
About a year ago it was suggested to me to interview Papa Joe and learn more about his life. When I asked him he said, “I don’t think I am that interesting.” I didn’t get the feeling he wanted the attention, so I didn’t interview him. A few months later I asked him again, to which he gave a similar reply. So instead of persisting, I let some more time go by.
A few weeks ago, I told him again that I wanted to interview him. This time his response was much different. He seemed eager and ready to put his life story into words for someone. He quickly remarked, “Yeah, you keep telling me that.” As if to say he was ready for me to actually do it and stop talking about it.
I had every intention in the new year of sitting down with this man of God and learning about everything he had gone through in his life. I will always regret not pushing through with it and convincing him to let me interview him. I actually wonder now if he was always intrigued to pour out his life song to me, but he was just so humble that his automatic response was to defer from the attention.
So how come on December 11th, two and a half weeks before his death he was suddenly gung ho to sit down with me? Perhaps it was because in November he had fallen and broken some ribs and was more aware of the precious gift and fragility of life, especially as we grow older. But I remember his sudden eagerness for me to interview him to be both exciting and concerning.
What I am about to tell you might seem strange and I can’t decipher why I got this premonition in a dream:
Joe fell this past Tuesday night and on Wednesday morning before I woke up, or knew anything had happened, I vividly remember dreaming in words. The words were, “Pray for the Prattico’s”, and “Papa Joe knew.”
When I awoke after the dream I checked my email to see Papa Joe had fallen and been taken to the hospital with broken ribs and was being rushed into surgery with bleeding on his brain. Papa Joe succumbed to his injuries the next day, Thursday December 29th.
I couldn’t believe I had dreamt those words without knowing anything was wrong. I was wondering what the words of my dream meant and why they were shown to me in a dream. Maybe it was to encourage me to write in spite of being disappointed in myself for not interviewing him when I had the chance. But here is the best way I can define what "Papa Joe knew" means to me:
I think what “Papa Joe knew…” means is actually an incomplete sentence or statement that all of us can complete in our own personalized way. My statement would finish with Papa Joe knew how to make you feel like the most important person in the room, no matter who you were or where you were in life. He knew how to love you greater than anyone who wasn’t required, per blood relation, to do so. He left you asking yourself, “Wait a minute, is he really my biological Grandfather and nobody is telling me? Why does he care so much?”
Papa Joe knew how to make you feel like even your story about trying to pick out a pair of shoes to wear that morning was worthwhile. You would never catch Papa Joe looking over your shoulder at his surroundings as he spoke with you; a focus trait so many of us don’t have. Basically he made you feel special because you were special to him….. Papa Joe just knew.
“I miss the man”
I had a CD of Papa Joe talking about how much he loved Pastor Al, which was recorded shortly after Al’s death in 2004. On that CD Papa Joe got teary eyed and choked up and said, “I miss the man. But I know I will see him again one day. And I am looking forward to it.” I remember listening to it and thinking I rue the day we are all saying the exact same thing about Papa Joe.
Farewell, but not Goodbye
The way he died seemed so unfair to me until I began to hear the details. At first, I thought he fell the day before his 60th anniversary only to find out it was the day of.
He got to celebrate 60 years of marriage with his sweetheart, he got to wear his coveted suit, and he got to tell his family how much he loved them, moments before he fell.
I wondered why we didn’t get any warning. Why was he just gone? And then my sister told me that it would have been too hard for us to watch him grow old and weak; or to watch him suffer. And as hard as it would have been for us to watch, it would have been equally hard for Papa Joe to live it himself. He would not have liked “getting old.” He was too vibrant, too zestful, and just too plain good to suffer from getting old.
The Lord knew exactly the right time. There was no way he was taking him before his 60th wedding anniversary. There was no way he was not letting a suit be the last outfit he slipped into, and no way he was letting him go out in any other way but celebratory and dignified.
In the words of Papa Joe himself, “I miss the man. But I know I will see him again one day. And I am looking forward to it.”
Because above all else,Papa Joe knew the way to heaven.