There are so many massive tragedies in the world that need to be addressed at the moment. However, for me, there is only one that I want to write about today and it is the passing of my dear friend, Joseph LaGuardia. Although he often referred to himself as a “nobody,” Joe is a person who touched countless lives and made our world a more loving place.
Joe was the first person to welcome me to Ursuline College more than four years ago. Before I began my position as dean, Joe, who was serving as interim dean, met with me every week for about 2 months. As we both transitioned to new roles, we exchanged gifts without knowing the other had purchased one. We laughed that we both bought each other books. Joe shared with me his book of poetry Life Seasons, which of course is brilliant. And I gave Joe the book The Presidents’ Club and joked with him that as only those who had served as presidents knew what it was like in the oval office, he and I were in the Dean’s Club, and we were among the few who knew what it was like to serve in the dean’s office.
I was so fortunate that Joe agreed to continue to mentor me and we met weekly for breakfast, lunch, etc. to discuss how to manage the many things that would pop up in the world of academic administration. It was not long before Joe and I became very close friends.
Joe knew I identify as a feminist. In fact, I had based my entire candidacy for the dean’s position on the fact that I am a feminist. He told me that it was clear the College wanted to grow in a new direction based on my hiring, and also warned that there were many who were not comfortable with the idea of a feminist in a leadership position at our Catholic women’s college. While Joe was completely comfortable with it, he was clear that feminism was not a part of his identity.
Thus, our many conversations about academic leadership also grew to include feminist and theological thoughts – as Joe was a theologian himself. Soon, Joe began reading feminist theological content. He quickly took to Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Besse and subscribed to both of their blogs. Every day he would share with me what he had read from both of these women, as well as the latest from Feminism and Religion. Shortly thereafter, Joe acknowledged that he had discovered that indeed he is a feminist – although I had known it all along.
Joe’s favorite feminist work is Longing for Running Water by Ivone Gebara. I loaned him my copy and he apologetically returned a brand new book because the pages were so worn from him reading and re-reading her words that had touched his heart and influenced his thoughts. I insisted that he keep the fresh copy – I wanted the worn copy to remind me of how much he appreciated Gebara’s wisdom.
I called Joe my BFF, a title he cherished. Every birthday and Christmas, Joe always surprised me with a thoughtful gift – something that proved he knew me so well – and would sign the card, “your BFF.”
Our colleagues recognized the close bond between us. Our friendship crossed gender and generations and I like to believe that we learned from each other. However, the truth is, Joe gave so much of himself to everyone, his spirit and love know no bounds. It is I who has been given such a gift by knowing Joe. He taught me what the beauty of our lives is all about.
Joe is not only my mentor and friend. He is family. In fact, my family knows Joe and his wife Bernadette well, and my daughter Sarah adores them. Joe often brought coloring books for Sarah and would sit and draw with her when she was with me. Joe and Bernadette kindly came to many events I invited them to. Not necessarily because they were interested, but because they always supported me.
The same can be said about Ursuline. Joe loved Ursuline College and all of his colleagues. No matter what was going on, he made sure to attend because it was important to him to show his support to each of the members of the Ursuline community. For Joe, serving as dean was a highlight in his career. But what he did not realize is that it was also a highlight for every faculty member that served in his school. He always focused on uplifting the faculty sharing with them their strengths and the gifts he saw them bringing to Ursuline.
When Joe decided to retire, it was a difficult and frightening time for him. He feared leaving Ursuline would disconnect him from so many people he cared deeply for – and also feared he would have nothing to do. I can’t help but laugh when I think of these conversations. No one ever forgot Joe and he continued to see his colleagues at the many events he would attend. And, I think he was busier in retirement than when he was a full-time dean.
Although nothing made Joe happier than to sit in solitude, write, and read, and focus on spiritual growth, he selflessly always gave his time to others. Joe led bible study and was a member of his church choir. He continually helped members of his church community by driving them to doctors appointments, helping with moving, and so much more. He participated in caring for the church community garden and also gave sermons quite frequently. In fact, he was scheduled to give a sermon the day after he passed on the topic of sanctuary – he was so looking forward to it.
Joe adored his wife, Bernadette, children, Jeannine and Jonathan, and his grandchildren, Eloise and “Cranky Frankie.” He loved being the proud grandpa showing pictures of his grandchildren and the wonderful things they were doing. He also loved his cabin in Tidioute, PA. He and Bernadette would go there nearly every weekend during the summer and often with his children and grandchildren. He called it “a little slice of heaven.” It is fitting that his ashes will be spread there.
Joe also loved Cleveland sports – but no team more than the Tribe – although he swore never to don a hat or any other article of clothing that imaged Chief WaHoo. Attending games with his brother was a joy for him. When he talked about it he was like a schoolboy who had been to a baseball game for the first time.
Joe and I had lunch this past Wednesday (October 11th) – as we did nearly every week for the last four years – and we had a deep conversation about God. Joe said he struggled with some interpretations of God and wanted to believe that God loved him no matter his sins. I told Joe that God put him on this earth to be an example to the rest of us – and I truly believe that.
While Joe often referred to himself as a “nobody,” in fact, Joe was somebody who changed the path of so many lives through his gracious compassion and love. I have no doubt our world is a better place because of the life of Joseph LaGuardia – not the airport or the mayor – but the teacher who taught so many what it means to be a human being.
Today we will gather to celebrate Joe’s life and the incredible impact he has made on this earth. As a prolific writer, Joe honored many through his craft. And this is my humble attempt to honor Joe in a way that he would see as fitting.
I had the privilege of attending a sermon that Joe gave at his church shortly after I began at Ursuline. It is called “A Different Format.” I still remember clearly that he spoke of the book Proof of Heaven. He talked about his wife looking for an audiobook to return to the library and a few days later she realized it was an audio file rather than a CD. Joe said that is how we should understand our lives. He said we never die, instead, we are always evolving and changing formats through space and time. I believe that. And I know when Joe met God on Saturday morning, October 14th, 2017, that God welcomed him, embraced him with love, and said, “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).
Gina Messina, Ph.D. is an American feminist scholar, Catholic theologian, author, and activist, and is Co-founder of FeminismandReligion.com. Her latest book Jesus in the White House: Make Humanity Great Again, with the foreword written by her BFF, Joseph LaGuardia, is now available. For writings by Joseph LaGuardia – including “A Different Format” – see his website, Biblical Joe.