Joe Magnus was born on October 27, 1931 in a town called Roztoky in what was then Czechoslovakia. He grew up in the middle of World War 2 and I’ve heard him tell many stories about the things he saw in his early years that probably contributed to the tough exterior he carried his whole life. I could spend hours recounting these tales, but I think the most important story from his life in Europe was the day he left. As I’ve heard it, when he turned 21, his birth country tried to draft him into the Army. He said, “No, I will not go. I am an American citizen.” I’m a little foggy on the details of this one, but his dad (my grandfather) was in America working when he was born. So he was born an American. The government gave him 24 hours to leave the country. So he packed up himself and his mom Anna (my grandmother) and he did exactly that. Now as he tells it, the plane almost went down. It was probably just some extreme turbulence by today’s standards. But he made a promise to God in that moment. “God, if you get me to America, I will never get on a plane again.” And God did. And Joe Magnus never set foot on a plane again. He thought about it once when my cousin Gaynor was getting married in England and he wanted to surprise me and my mom by taking the Concord and showing up. But when he got bumped from the flight, he took it as a sign and backed down, upholding his promise to God.
Now I tell you this story for a reason. That I think is a relevant one at this particular moment today. You see, the moment Joe Magnus set foot on American soil, he became an American. America was his country, with Czechoslovakia just happening to be the place he was born. He bled red, white, and blue and spent his life as a staunch conservative. He loved this country. He and Margie (my mom) went several times to the White House in the Bush years and there are pictures proudly displayed in his apartment. If I ever called him to tell him that I got a raise or a promotion or something good happened financially, he’d say, “Good country. Let’s go sing God Bless America on Grand Avenue.”
My personal relationship with Joe Magnus started off sweetly. In my early years, we were known as the “man with the hat and the little girl”, a title that the owner of the Catskill Motor Court upstate bestowed upon us when we visited for vacation every year. We were inseparable. But, as most people can say about their parents, we had a complicated relationship as I grew up, which I think stemmed from the fact that I inherited so much of his personality. There’s a line in a U2 song that Bono wrote about his father where he says “If we weren’t so alike, I’d like you a whole lot more,” This was true of the two of us. Throughout the years, we had many highs and lows and some epic fights that Margie had to break up and tell us both our behavior was “unacceptable”. But beneath it all, I knew he loved me and the one thing I wanted most on earth was to make him proud of me. And he set the bar very high. As competitive as I was, so was he. I remember bringing home test scores of 99 and him asking where the other point was. Overall, I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard him say he was proud of me my whole life. And I hold each one of those in a special place in my memory and my heart. Because each one was earned.
My dad never went to college, but it didn’t matter. He was for sure one of the smartest, most successful people I’ve known. Quite the Renaissance man. Computer programmer, EMT, community activist, writer, animal lover, to name a few. I’ve learned many important lessons from my dad. The most important one was to work your butt off and live below your means to get ahead.
I grew up as the child of two immigrants who didn’t take anything for granted and saved like the world was ending. They paid off their house in 5 years and Joe Magnus would tell stories about how they sat on Grand Avenue and split a hot dog for dinner. Being that I’m as competitive as he was, one of my happiest days was when I called to tell him that I’d beat him at his own game. And Chris and I paid off our house in 4 ½ years. Of course, he told me I’d remembered incorrectly and that he did it in 4 years. But he did say he was proud of me and Chris. And that got added to my precious collection.
As many of you know, Joe Magnus was often quick to explode if you told him something he didn’t want to hear. He would tell people, “No, no. You gonna do it. Or I burn your house down.” Lot of laughs came from him telling people that. But I think we all knew that beneath this stern and rough exterior was a man with a heart of gold. Who would give you the shirt off his back and spent his whole life in service. Helping people in need. I forget how many thousands of people he’d say he took to the hospital with his ambulance at MVVAC. My guess is that the count wasn’t far off. And he saved lots of lives. He was also a very good friend. And I know for a fact that, for many of his friends, he was that one phone call you’d make if it was 3am and you needed help right away with no questions asked.
So at this time I’ll rest. I know all of us will miss this amazing man very much. I’m glad that he was around to meet Sean and Maggie and see them start to turn into little people with personalities. I will have to get used to the fact that when my phone rings, it’s not him. But I know that he’s in Heaven, reunited with his beloved Margie. And that brings me great comfort. Safe travels Joe Magnus and may God find you an ambulance to ride up in Heaven.