- Wright Thompson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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FLOSSMOOR, Ill. -- On a cold, sunny Friday, five days ago, they said goodbye to a man named Joe Guthrie. During his 87 years, he'd lived many lives: a Private First Class in Patton's Army, a faithful caretaker to his wife Elizabeth, a great-grandfather, a dedicated fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Not the school, which he did not attend. The football team. An hour before the service, a Chief Warrant Officer with a chest full of medals and a Ranger tab parked in the quiet lot across the street from the Flossmoor Community Church. He opened his trunk and took out clean white gloves. Birds chirped. A bagpiper wrapped a kilt around his waist and tied his tie using the side window of a Ford Explorer as a mirror. His job was to play "Amazing Grace."
Everyone thought Joe would like the bagpipes. He took great pride in his Scotch-Irish heritage. He was born poor, just before the Depression; as an adult, he'd save fast-food cups and wash them out, or refuse to throw away empty bread bags. He beat the odds in the first few days of his life, a two-pound preemie in a makeshift incubator -- a shoebox next to a wood-burning stove. Shoebox Joe, his mother Pearl called him. A survivor. Nobody knows how exactly he became a Notre Dame fan, but his family suspects it's the Irish roots. He felt a connection.
For years, he bought season tickets, letting them go after he retired and couldn't afford the cost. During those years, he'd take his children sometimes, and they'd walk through campus to the stadium, the air smelling like bratwurst. During the 1970s he carried a prank phone to the games -- his children joke that he lacked a "sense of serious" -- and he'd make it ring, startling everyone around him. Once he answered it, then handed it to the guy next to him, saying, "It's for you. It's the Pope."
The 2012 undefeated season was a welcomed respite. Liz fell in September, and her doctor told them they had to move out of their house, after 49 years. It took three weeks but space at an assisted living facility opened. Liz remained in the hospital, fighting an infection and injuries suffered in her fall, and Joe made their new place comfortable. Gale and Tom Whitworth, his daughter and son-in-law, drove from Pennsylvania to help. Joe was color blind, and Liz had always picked out his clothes, so Gale put together outfits, making sure ties matched shirts. On the sixth night in the new place, they sat down to watch the Notre Dame-Pittsburgh game. Joe talked about how much this resurgence meant to him, and as the Irish struggled, he focused on the television. "You could see the intensity that he had," Tom says, "when it was 20-6, then it was 20-13, then 20-20, then they won in overtime. He was a happy camper. That was Saturday. He fell on Monday. He died on Wednesday."
The last time they saw him was the morning after the game, as Joe left for church and they left for home. He wore the clothes Gale picked out.
"He looked so good," she says. "He looked sharp. He put on his black cashmere coat, and he had a black beret. He looked cool."
"Dapper," Tom says. "And he felt good, too."
"He smiled at us," Gale says.
The pastor and two soldiers and the bagpiper waited for the family and friends to arrive. Photos of Joe and Liz rested on tables and easels outside the sanctuary, young and cocky with black hair, smiling and more relaxed as he turned gray. There was a frame with his military medals. The Bronze Star citation for valor in combat called Joe a hero, but he thought of himself more as a survivor. Shoebox Joe. The family tells a story about how many years ago, Joe and his friends held one of the last bridges across the Rhine. They'd been ordered to die in defense of it. Some of them did. Hollywood would make a movie about those events, called "A Bridge Too Far."
"He was at the Battle of the Bulge," the Chief Warrant Officer said.
"He was?" asked one of the soldiers, a bugler, who wore only a few medals on his chest.
Joe didn't talk much about the war, retelling harmless stories, about the time he drove General Patton's jeep, about rolling at the very front of the entire Third Army as it pounded toward Germany. The horrible memories he kept mostly to himself, the hedgerows, the dead friends, the endless snow of the Ardennes. The cold haunted him. He always refused to take his son camping. Eighteen years ago, Gale and her family took Joe back to the battlefields of Europe. There, on that ground, he began to tell stories, and he never really stopped. Something opened. He walked the D-Day beaches with his grandson. They stood together in a museum, a 360-degree 3-D theater, and as the bombs shook the speakers, and airplanes roared overhead, Joe began to sob. He was 18 again.
Waiting inside the church, the pastor explained Liz's condition to the honor guard soldiers, so they'd be prepared. She has dementia, he told them. "We told her several times," Gale would say afterward. "First time it didn't take at all. Next couple of times it took a little bit. Yesterday Sandy and I told her again and we think she understood."
The sanctuary filled up, mostly elderly couples. Gale, Sandy Beal and Warren Guthrie, Joe and Liz's children, watched the men and women, wearing American flag lapel pins and winter scarves. The siblings finally understood why their parents refused to move closer to any of them. They'd built a rich life here, were part of a community, and now that community came together to mourn. A nurse's aide wheeled Liz down the center aisle, and she looked around at the crowd, uncertain. The pastor asked everyone to be seated.
"It's good to see a full sanctuary," he said, "for someone as beloved as Joe."
He told a story. Not long ago, he visited Liz in the hospital and, as always, Joe was by her side. Liz's eyes were closed and she didn't say anything. The pastor, fairly new to this congregation, asked how long they'd been married.
"Sixty-six years," Joe said.
The pastor made a joke, asking how many of those years they'd been happily married. Liz opened her eyes as she and Joe said together, "All of them." On Joe's last night, two days after hitting his head in a fall, the family brought Liz to his side. They held hands.
Now she sat in a wheelchair, parked next to her children, listening to the eulogies. A friend told about a homemade contraption Joe made for him that allowed an English muffin to be removed from a toaster safely. People smiled; he'd made lots of them. Someone mentioned his license plate: JOLIZ 3. Sandy and Gale told the story of Shoebox Joe. Warren went last and, in the middle of his eulogy, a phone rang. Everyone looked confused until he reached under the podium and pulled out a receiver. The family laughed.
"Yes, yes," he said, joking about the election, "he won."
He paused. "It's Chicago," he said, "You can still vote next time."
The sanctuary roared, and it was perfect. Warren talked about all the things he inherited from his father, and how Joe would stroke his legs when he was a child, helping him go to sleep. "I put Dad to sleep much the same way," he said, and his voice cracked, and he slipped back to his seat. The veterans in the crowd saluted during "Taps." One old man's hand shook as he held it to his forehead.
The honor guard folded the flag.
"The Flag of Joseph A. Guthrie," the Chief Warrant Officer said in a solemn, booming voice, "Private First Class in the United States Army."
He presented it to Liz, who clutched it in her wheelchair.
"Thank you," the soldier said, as he saluted.
"You're welcome," Liz replied, and she seemed to understand.
The bagpiper filled the sanctuary with "Amazing Grace," as family, and then friends, left Joe Guthrie's ashes behind. A van took Liz back to the hospital, and she rode with her nurse and the flowers from the altar. That night, the family sat together at the neighborhood pizza place Joe loved, where they'd always gather upon returning to the old home, where they'd probably never gather like this again. They raised a glass -- "to Joe" "our Joe" "Shoebox Joe" -- and the middle child, Sandy, put his picture in the menu holder. Her lip quivered when she looked at it.
"He is smiling at me," she said, a half sob.
"He is in a much better place," her husband said gently, "where he's not suffering."
"I know," she said, "but we miss him."
A granddaughter asked why they had grandpa's picture on the table.
"Because we want him to be here with us."
The little girl, confused, whispered a question.
"Even though he's dead," Sandy answered, "he's not fake. He'll be real forever."
Kenneth Pawell worked as an usher at Notre Dame Stadium for 28 years, in section 35, retiring after the last national championship. He served in Korea. Wardell Jenkins liked to hunt and fish. Edgar Davis served in Patton's Army, too, manning a radio. He loved Walloon Lake and the Elks Lodge No. 235 of South Bend. Bob Olson loved his high school sweetheart. They were married 67 years. Mickey Ward worked as a boilermaker for U.S. Steel. During the winter, he longed for warm weather and golf. Betty Miller adored her dog, Molly. A.J. Nolan lost an eye at Guadalcanal. The people of Gloucester City, Pa., knew him as "everyone's favorite mailman." He married his high school sweetheart, too. Thomas Tudor served the United Methodist Church and American Legion Post No. 201. Jim O'Connor once took his son to Ireland. William Goetz was proud of his pond. Pat Pietrowski visited 48 states and is missed by her two granddaughters. Tony DeSimone was a member of a bowling league. William Burke helped build space shuttles and nuclear submarines and enjoyed drawing cartoons. Joseph Guthrie survived the Battle of the Bulge and was known for his smile. They all loved Notre Dame football. They all died late during this season of renewal, seeing the beginning of something but not the end. As Saturday night unfolded, when Notre Dame won, and Oregon and Kansas State lost, the people who missed them saw the games or heard the news. The Irish were again No. 1. Gale Whitworth thought of Joe. "Dad was cheering," she said, "and is smiling."