Neal White

There’s something about hearing the voice of an old friend you haven’t seen in a while that makes the sun seem to shine a little brighter. That’s how I felt when I heard from Joe Jenkins last week. 

I have so many wonderful memories of the times we spent together over the years. 

He’s a Waxahachie original, a kind soul and a tremendous friend. He’s experienced the good and the bad that come with life and, through 93 years of perpetual motion, he will look you in the eyes and tell you with heartfelt sincerity, “It’s a wonderful life.”  

I first met Joe in January or February 1997. Ralph Hewitt had recruited me for the Waxahachie Optimist Club and Joe happened to be the keynote speaker at that meeting. We met in the back room of the Catfish King. John D. Ferguson was the club’s president and he shook my hand, pausing long enough for me to sit my plate of catfish, beans and slaw down on the table. I remember David Hudgins and Frank McCoy being there, along with Marvin Singer and a few others. I hadn’t been in Waxahachie very long, but I remember they sure made me feel welcome.

Frank gave the opening prayer, afterwards sharing in casual conversation while eating our lunch. 

And then John D. introduced Joe. 

I was in awe during his entire presentation — which he delivered off the cuff, no notes, no charts, no slides or PowerPoint presentation. Just Joe, from the heart. 

He talked about growing up in Waxahachie and some of the mischief he and his best friend Pat McElroy would get into in their younger days. He spoke about going to class in the old Waxahachie school building on Gibson Street, which now serves as the district’s administration building. 

Just a few months earlier, North Texas had implemented 10-digit dialing for local calls. I remember Joe devoting a full five minutes of his speaking time to the subject. I was riveted to my seat as he remembered when you could make a local call with just three numbers. Of course, he painted a picture so vivid I felt as if I had been transported back in time. He left everyone in the room with a smile on their face and feeling blessed for the experience. 

And just like that, we became friends.

I imagine that’s how everyone felt the first time they met Joe. 

While there are some who have disagreed with his decisions while serving on the city council, I’ve never heard anyone say a disparaging word about Joe. But I have heard thousands express respect, admiration and love for the man who is still affectionately referred to as “Mayor Joe.”

A few years after our first meeting, Joe did run for council. He went on to serve several terms — with many of those serving as mayor. 

From our first meeting, in my mind, Joe and Waxahachie have always been intertwind. While I knew he was born and raised in Waxahachie — and still living in the home he grew up in — I had made the assumption that Joe had lived here his entire life. 

We were having lunch during an Education Foundation for WISD board meeting and, as usual, everyone was listening to Joe tell a story about dipping a girl’s pigtail into the inkwell at a desk by that window, causing everyone in the room to look toward the window where he was pointing. 

And with no transition, no time to buckle up, he took us from the 1930s back to the late 1990s and how time changes all things. And then mentions, “ … since I’ve moved back to Waxahachie …”

I had to stop him to ask the question.

Joe was more than happy to answer. 

Here’s the short version. But if you get the chance to hear it from the source, Joe tells it a lot better than I could ever hope for.  

After graduating Waxahachie High School, Joe enlisted in the U.S. Navy and volunteered to become a corpsman. He wanted to serve his country and do his part for the war effort, though he didn’t think his heart could ever hate enough to take a human life. So instead, he volunteered to risk his by trying to save the lives of those injured in battle. 

Several years later, I had the honor of being one of the Guardians assisting Joe and other World War II veterans on a trip to Washington, D.C., with Ellis County Honor Flight. That’s when I learned that Joe had been stationed on the island of Okinawa just prior to the end of the war with Japan. He was part of the troop buildup leading up to the invasion of mainland Japan. He told me what it was like, and what was on every man’s mind, as they prepared for what they all feared would be a one-way trip. 

Joe said the War Department had sent out a briefing paper on the invasion plan that called for up to 1 million Allied casualties believing the Japanese would fight to the last person to defend the emperor. 

“When we received the news that Japan had surrendered, we were still on alert awaiting orders for the invasion,” Joe told me. “I hit my knees right where I stood and said a prayer of thanks to the good Lord.”

Following the war, Joe used his GI Bill to go to college and afterwards found work in Chicago, where he began a career in social work. Joe only talks about his career in generalities, never specifics, when the subject comes up. Normally, I never shy away from asking a probing question but I never once tried to dig too deep in asking about his work. I knew he tried to help mend broken families and broken people and, in my mind, it seemed like a calling he was designed by God to fulfill. 

During those years in Chicago, he settled down and helped raise a family, experiencing his share of triumphs and tragedies along the way. 

When it came time for him to retire, he could think of no place else he would rather be than in Waxahachie. 

I can’t remember what meeting it was (Joe and I served on a lot of boards together back then), but I clearly remember him telling a story about his best bud, Pat McElroy. He told us that Pat had returned to Waxahachie after the war and gave back to the community by serving on the council — including several terms as mayor. Someone in the room, it might have been John D., but I can’t remember exactly whom it was, spoke up and said, “Joe, we got an election coming up. Why don’t you throw your hat in the ring? You always said you could do anything Pat could do.”

And just like that, Joe’s political career began. 

An interesting fact about Mayor Joe: In all the elections he ran in, not once did he ask for campaign donations, put out yard signs or send out campaign mailers. 

He did purchase push cards and handed them out door-to-door as he canvassed every neighborhood in the city. He bought an ad in the paper but it wasn’t your typical campaign ad filled with empty promises and divisive accusations about the other candidate. His ads were always straightforward and from the heart. 

His message was clear: “I love Waxahachie and I want to serve.”  

Joe wasn’t a fan of big dollar campaigns.

I don’t know if it was out of nostalgia, him wanting to hold on to the small town feeling of his childhood when everyone in town knew everyone else, and if someone didn’t already know him, he was going to give them every opportunity before the election. Perhaps, I still wonder, it’s because he believes — at the local level, anyway — folks should know the people they vote for, not from a sign or a campaign mailer, but because they’ve talked face-to-face. 

Joe has always been big on face-to-face communication. 

He will take your call. He will even answer your email. But his responses are almost always, “Let’s go get a coffee or have lunch and talk about it.”

And he’s really big on hand-written thank you letters, notes expressing his congratulations on an achievement or just to say, “I appreciate you.” I bet there are thousands of “Joe letters” floating around Waxahachie because he lived his catchphrase. 

I think the catchphrase developed before his political career but he never missed a chance to use it at every council meeting, public event and speech he delivered.

And when it comes to speeches, in my opinion having attended nearly two decades of chamber banquets, Joe delivered the best acceptance speech when he was awarded with the community’s “Outstanding Citizen of the Year” award. I still remember it, verbatim. 

After being handed the plaque, he walked to the podium, looked out at the audience and paused. Joe is a great speaker and knows how to work a pause for effect. But, as he looked away from the crowd and down at the plaque, the pause lasted a little longer than normal. I was beginning to wonder if Joe was tongue-tied and overcome with emotions when he finally leaned down to the microphone and spoke.

“You know, I come up with my best speeches in the shower,” he said, drawing a light chuckle from the audience. “I’m sure that tomorrow morning when I step into the shower, I’ll come up with the perfect words to express my gratitude and sincere appreciation for such a tremendous honor.

“But unless y’all want to come over to my house in the morning, all I can think to say is thank you all and to tell you I’m deeply honored by this,” he said, drawing both applause and laughter from the crowd assembled at the civic center. “It goes without saying but I’m going to say it anyway. I love Waxahachie, and I know you do, too.” 

Everyone in the room rose to their feet and the ovation in the banquet hall was deafening. As the applause died down, Joe raised his hand in recognition to his family seated in the back of the room, then returned to the microphone to thank them publicly before introducing each member of the Jenkins clan.

“One more time,” he said after expressing praise to his family members for their contribution in his life. “This time, all together.” And in one unified voice, everyone in the room shouted along with Joe: “I love Waxahachie, and I know you do, too!”

That catchphrase has been embraced and repeated so often by so many over the years I’m sure today there are some in the community who have heard it but don’t know its origin or the story behind it. 

In the nearly two decades I’ve known Joe and we’ve been friends, every time we get together I learn something new about Waxahachie, about Joe and, more often than not, discover something about myself in the process.

Joe’s 90th birthday was no exception.

In late July of 2015, Joe’s wife Jan called to invite Scott Dorsett and me to a special birthday party the family was planning in Joe’s honor. Jan said she thought we might be interested in covering it for the paper but, even if we didn’t, she and Joe would be honored if we attended.

We didn’t hesitate in accepting the invitation. Joe’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were flying in from around the world to share in the celebration. And as I understood it, it was the first time all of them would be together in Waxahachie at the same time.

It was a sweltering hot July afternoon when Dorsett and I pulled up to the curb in front of the Jenkins home on Sycamore Street. Grandkids and great-grandkids were running about the yard when Joe spotted us walking up the driveway and came out to greet us, thanking us for coming and, at the same time, Jan handed us a cold glass of sweet tea to help us stay hydrated and cool in the heat. 

All the doors and windows were open and, when paired with the ceiling fans, created a draft that kept the inside of the house cool. Dorsett commented that he bet this was exactly what it was like back when Joe was a boy growing up in the same house — long before central air conditioning became a residential necessity.

Jan showed us into the dining room where we set up our equipment. I started talking to some of their children as Dorsett began snapping pictures.

“We told Joe we could celebrate his 90th birthday anywhere in the world he wanted to — the entire family would be there,” Jan told us. With children living Australia, that was an option floated about, along with Hawaii, Europe or any other point on the globe for that matter, she explained. “We told him all he had to do was pick the place. It took him less than five seconds to answer, and his choice was right here.”

I hadn’t noticed Joe wasn’t in the room until I heard him calling out for us to join him in the garage. I excused myself from the table to find Joe, and Dorsett was just a few feet behind me, snapping pictures with every step.

“You know why I chose here, don’t you?” Joe asked. “This house, this yard, this community has so many wonderful memories for me. It’s where my heart feels fullest and I can think of no other place in the world I’d rather be on my 90th birthday than right here, surrounded by my entire family.”

Earlier in the day, Joe had taken the family on a tour of his favorite city in the world. He took them on a stroll through downtown and showed them where Happy’s Hamburger stand was located and told them stories about Happy Drummand. He told them how he was the local Scout leader, youth baseball coach and sold hamburgers near the theater for 5-cents each. 

He took them to Katy Lake and told the story of how he and Pat were exploring one day and discovered a partially submerged Jon boat just off shore. That summer, he and Pat salvaged the boat and spent their free time patching its holes while hatching a plan to sail the seven seas – until the owner noticed his boat fully afloat and reclaimed ownership.

“I’m not sure if maritime salvage rights apply to Katy Lake,” he said, retelling the story as the kids and grandkids had gathered around to hear it again. “I think we might have had a case, though,” he said.

A few minutes later he was standing in the back yard with just me and Dorsett. A few of the great-grandkids remained outside to play while everyone else had gone inside to finish preparations for the party. Joe pointed to the picket fence in the backyard, noting that he and Pat used to climb over that fence when they were boys taking a shortcut to each other’s house. I noticed that one section of the fence had recently been replaced.

“Come here,” he said, leading us back into the garage. “I want to show you something.”

He walked over to his workbench and picked up a stack of wooden boards — pieces of a picket fence, from the section that had recently been replaced.

“We have a tradition in our house going back to when the kids were young,” he said. “Every Christmas we would gather around the television as a family and watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ We never missed a year. For my 90th birthday, I wanted to give the kids something that ties them to not just me, but to their roots that are firmly planted in Waxahachie and the values that sprout up from those roots.”

He picked up the top board and held it for us to look at. Dorsett’s camera clicked away as I gazed on the hand-painted artwork with the words painted down the length of the board in script, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“I’ve seen a lot of bad things in my life. No one escapes life unscathed,” he told us. “While bad things happen in life, experiencing the gift that God has given us is truly remarkable. It really is a wonderful life and, honestly, standing here in the yard of my home in Waxahachie with my entire family here with me, I feel like I’m the luckiest man on earth.” 

When Dorsett and I got in the car to head back to the paper, we looked at each other in silence, taking time to soak in the experience we both felt blessed to have shared. 

When you hang around Joe, that’s not uncommon.

He’s a Waxahachie original and one of the people who embodies the true spirit of a great community.

Thank you, Mayor Joe. Hearing your voice made the sky seem a brighter shade of blue and the final days of a long, cold winter feel a lot warmer.

I haven’t had a chance to speak with Dorsett since our chat but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that we both look forward to sharing a small part of your 94th birthday with you in a few months.

I look forward to seeing you soon, my friend.

 

Neal White is the chief content officer of The Waxahachie Sun. An award-winning journalist and published author, he was also commissioned by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as an Honorary Admiral in the Texas Navy. Reach Neal by email at neal@waxahachiesun.com, or by phone at 214-673-3695. 

(1) comment

coysevier

Mayor Joe is one in a million. He is this town's Greatest Treasure. Thank You Mayor Jenkins!

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