‘Uncle Joe’

June 27th, 2015 1:54 am

First Posted: 4/13/2013

It took a few seconds for the name to register, but when it did, I got excited.

So this was Joe Haganey.

I had heard about Joe Haganey (rhymes with agony) last spring. Word of a 47-year-old playing on a college baseball team spreads fast. And here he was in person onthe first day of my summer speech class. What a marvelous surprise.

First of all, you’d never take Joe for 47 (he’s now 48) and he told me one day that was a running joke throughout the baseball season. “Other coaches would come up and ask about this 47-year-old they heard about and our coach would say ‘Try to pick him out.’ They never could.”

And they couldn’t by his play, either. The team’s starting second baseman, Joe went through the entire season without an error.

None of this, of course, stopped his teammates from dubbing him “Uncle Joe,” and that was just fine with him.

On that first day of class Joe made one thing clear, he was scared to death. “I’ve shot darts in front of thousands (more on that later) and played baseball in frnt of hundreds, but I’m not so sure about this,” he said.

He wasn’t alone. Or unusual. Surveys of people’s fears often rank giving a speech as number one. Dying usually comes in fififth or sixth. Which means most people would rather die than give a speech. Or as Jerry Seinfield puts it, “At a funeral, most people would rather be the person in the coffin than the person delivering the eulogy.”

A eulogy is one thing I have my students do. The chances of any of them giving a formal speech in their lives are actually pretty slim. But, the chances of someday being at a funeral at which they are the perfect person to deliver the eulogy are, unfortunately, certain. So, it’s something we practice.

I always wish none of the students have lost someone dear, but if they have, speech class can be an opportunity to perhaps say the things they never got to at the funeral. No pun intended, but this opportunity was right in Joe Haganey’s strike zone.

In his introductory speech, where the students talk about themselves, Joe explained that his dad owned a bar and he had grown up shooting darts. It wasn’t unusual for him to dractice darts for five hours in a row, or to throw a hundred straight bull’s eyes. By the time he graduated from high school, Joe was a good enough baseball played to be invited to try out for the Phillies, but he was also a good enough dart thrower to be invited to a tournament in Japan. He chose the latter, and wound up playing professional darts — who knew there was such a thing? — for the next ten years. And winning more than $100,000 along the way.

Joe said his dad was always his inspiration and when, upon returning from a dart trip in 2001, he was told his dad had died, it hit him hard.

His sister wanted him to deliver the eulogy but he couldn’t. Instead, his sister wrote down something and read it herself. Joe saw this speech assignment as a chance for redemption. “I know my sister still has what she wrote,” he said, “and I’m going to get her to send it to me.”

On the day of Joe’s speech, he sat fidgeting with an envelope. “This it is,” he said. “But I haven’t even opened it.”

He didn’t until he stepped to the mic and then he just stared at the paper in front of him for several minutes. At last, he looked at me and said, “I can’t.”

“How about if I read it with you standing next to me?” I asked and Joe agreed. When I got to the end, the part that said “I love you, Dad,” I stopped. And Joe said those words himself.

Later he told me he said every word in his head as I read them and that, while he could not read them himself, it did make him feel better.

I tell you this today, because early last week I learned that Joe Haganey was selected to speak at the annual spring legislative breakfast at the college. He was going to get up in front of a roomfull of state legislators, college trustees, administrators and teachers, and foundation board members, and talk about his experiences. I made it a point to be there Friday morning and Joe Haganey, appropriately, knocked that speech out of the park.

Dart career long over, the place where he once worked closed down, Joe enrolled in the community college two years ago. He hit the books the way he hit the diamond: with everything he had. And how he’s about to graduate as an electrician. He told me he already has a job interview this Tuesday. Feel free to call this a letter of recommendation.