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My father went about his business quietly. He walked softly, and he didn't carry a stick at all.
What he had was the pen. As a newspaper columnist he could wield it any way he saw fit. He could have torn down. But he chose to build.
He told the stories of people in this community. He never injected himself. He'd say, in a myriad of different ways, as he was telling a myriad of different stories...."if you're out there, can you help?"
He'd return over and over to helping the poor. It pained him knowing that folks didn't have enough food to eat, or a stable roof over their head....and that these people lived among all of us. A few streets over. Or even next door. So much poverty is out of sight, handled almost regally by proud people who do the best they can....and find that sometimes that's not enough. He'd get calls and letters all the time. This person needs help. This family. This organization. "Friends of the Poor" was an organization he championed for years. Whatever they needed. There was nothing complicated about any of this stuff to him. When people needed help, he gave what he could, and he pounded out words on the typewriter asking others to do the same. He never asked anybody to do something that he didn't already do.
He never chastised. He beseeched.
Every year "Friends of the Poor" would deliver him a modest gift at Christmas....a basket or something similar. Volunteers would deliver it personally. My Dad would be close to tears accepting. These were the people he was helping...at his door. They'd tell him quick, simple stories. Their own. Maybe the jackets they were wearing were finally warm enough....somebody had donated them. Or this winter, finally, nobody shut off their heat. The world could be a hard, cruel place. But they wanted him to know that they knew what he had done. How it had filtered down. To them. To their families. To their neighbors. And they were gonna hug him hard no matter how embarrassed he got.
In a way they gave him more than he ever gave to them.
And then there was Bobby Walsh.
When my Dad met him, Bobby was 11 years old. He had cerebral palsy. He couldn't walk, talk, or use his hands, "but he certainly knew how to smile", Dad remembered. With no way to communicate, Bobby was hopelessly behind in school. In and out of institutions, he was always classified as "learning disabled", almost out of desperation. But there was a special computer that would help him communicate. It would speak for him as he used pointers that were attached to his head to tap out keys. This was in the early 1980s. The cost was $5000. Bobby's parents had contacted my Father asking if he could help them. My Dad gulped. Serious money then. It would be roughly $17k today.
But he could try. And he did. He wrote about Bobby. About that smile, and his extraordinary parents, who had selflessly adopted Bobby after raising 6 kids of their own. My father wrote countless letters on Bobby's behalf, explaining what the kid needed. One went to the Kiwanis Club, who agreed to help. Scranton is tarred with a lot of brushes. We deserve some of the splatter for sure, but nobody rallies around their own like Scranton people do. They may live hard, but they dig deep hard, too. They came through for this kid. And a lot of others.
Once Bobby had this computer, he made up 6 years of schooling in one year. As my Dad put it, Bobby "took off like a helicopter". Far from learning disabled, he was gifted. He graduated with honors from West Scranton High School, and went on to get an MBA from Marywood University. He's currently employed by Lackawanna County as a Systems Support Analyst. He's one of the county's longest tenured employees. And perhaps its most beloved.
Yea…this kid.....he had that spark. As my Dad called it...."the sizzle". He positively crackled with it. I think my Dad fell in love that first day....and theirs became one of the most valuable friendships he ever had. Every Christmas they'd exchange gifts, and whatever Bobby had given him would be in a place of honor under our tree. If you asked my Dad, as a journalist, what he was most proud of, this man who was the first newspaperman to interview Bobby Kennedy after the murder of his brother, always said "Bobby Walsh". When Bobby learned that my Dad was visiting, he'd practically jump out of his chair in excitement. They adored each other. As equals.
When my Dad died he was buried in a tie Bobby had given him for Christmas. Bobby spotted it right away at the wake. He was crying, but this made him smile. He said this of my Father then...
Joe Flannery was my best friend. He helped me in so many ways. I will never forget his help, kindness and friendship. I know he is at peace with God. GOD has a great journalist to do his writing now. I shall miss him but never forget him.
I’m not sure what triggered all of this today. Maybe my niece Amanda. She was the first female grandchild. She just gave birth to Harper Joan….and oh how I wish her proud Papa could have been here. Amanda was one of the twinkles in his eye. Harper would have been another.
Maybe it’s no more than that. The missing gets harder this time of year.
I last saw Bobby a few years back. He was at Andy Gavin’s. He didn’t recognize me. It had been a long time. I introduced myself as Joe Flannery’s son. He nearly jumped out of his chair. And that smile?
In a bit..