It was about halfway home from former Congressman Joe Skubitz's vigil service in Wichita — back in September of 2000 — that a nearly-full moon rose majestically over the highway, an orange beacon to guide our late night drive back to southeast Kansas.
The moon was a fitting tribute to one of the Little Balkans finest men, who died at age 93. Not to mention a powerful metaphor — that death, like the beautiful sunset we witnessed earlier over the rolling hills, gives rise to a new life.
One that, like the moon over the highway, calls us toward home.
At the mortuary, Joe's son, Dan, in ill health himself, could only make a short, sad visit. But Dan's wife, Betty, gathered their children and grandchildren around her in the vaulted chapel to gaze loving at Joe in his flag-draped casket, touch him, kiss him and listen to the priest's prayers and commentary offered at the edge of a wall of flowers sent by friends and relatives.
Father Joe Vacca opened his remarks with the statement, "Joe loved to tell me stories, whether about traveling in Europe and meeting the pope ... or about southeast Kansas."
It's interesting, but not surprising, that stories about southeast Kansas and meeting the pope sounded like they occupied about equal status on Joe's storytelling list. Knowing Joe, and his unforgettable, ebullient personality, I found myself wondering if the pope later told stories about him and southeast Kansas around the Vatican.
For he was, indeed, special. A born storyteller. A man of brains, wit and heart who loved to flirt with the women, charm the men and entertain the children. Barbara Hartley, his care giver in the last year's of his life, responded when my wife, Linda, complimented her on the marvelous way she cared for and about him, "Hey, I got the best part that deal!"
I first met Joe in Prete's barber shop in Frontenac around 1961. I was in the chair getting a flat top when Frankie spied Joe walking down the opposite side of the street, whipped out his talc brush and rapped the handle on the plate glass until he got Joe's attention.
Joe's crossed over and shot the bull a while with Frankie and the barbershop crowd while I listened. I don't remember what he said, but I do remember the humor and benevolence in the air.
This native son of Slovenian immigrants — a coal miner father and an activist mother who helped organize the Amazon Army march in 1921 — Joe was one of Frontenac's most illustrious graduates. He also attended two years of high school in Girard while growing up in Ringo, a mining camp located between both towns.
After earning his teaching certificate at what was then Kansas State Teacher's College in Pittsburg, he went on to serve as principal at Arma before going on to graduate from George Washington Law School and serve 16 years as 5th District Congressman.
Skubitz was instrumental in passing a bill to secure black lung benefits for local miners as well as legislation that designated Fort Scott a historical landmark, thereby qualifying the site for federal restoration funds.
In the mortuary vestibule, John Parolo — Joe's longtime friend from Croweburg who drove over to see Joe every couple of months with a load of Pallucca's sausage and Frontenac Bakery hard crust bread — told me that he used to tease Joe about leaving his post as Arma High School's principal in 1938. "I told him," Parolo smiled impishly, "after just one semester with me you realized you'd met your match and headed off to Washington."
Speaking of hard crust bread, Father Joe Vacca, who conducted Joe's vigil service, it turns out, is the great grandson of George Vacca, the man who immigrated from Italy to southeast Kansas and founded Frontenac Bakery in 1900. In referring to Joe's move into the hereafter Father Vacca opined, "The bread of heaven is even better than Frontenac bread."
It was the kind of statement that would have made Joe's eyes sparkle. Also one that would likely have prompted this lover of ethnic foods to ask with a smile, "Yeah, but what about the sausage?"
Of all the remembrances of Joe I heard, the one Barbara told my wife about driving him around to collect past due payments from some his renters is the one most telling about the man. "If he went into a renter's house and saw that they were a family in difficult times," she said, "not only would he forgo the rent, he'd buy them food to help them get along until they could get back on their feet."
So not only did Joe Skubitz serve southeast Kansas as an educator, his district as a congressman and his country as a statesman, he remained, through it all, a down to earth, compassionate man who never forgot the hardships he, his parents and neighbors endured in the mining camps.
All of which, in my book, ranks him as one of our most beloved southeast Kansans.
That, and that he loved to tell a good story.
— This column originally appeared September 8, 2000. J.T. Knoll, a writer, speaker and eulogist, operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at email@example.com or 231-0499.