Every “girl dad” out there can relate to emotions I experienced when my daughter called me — sounding very stressed — and told me that a guy had come into the dorm in which she was an R.A., pushed his girlfriend around and threatened my daughter when she told him to leave.
I was pissed, getting ready to make the half hour drive, and she called back — sounding much more relaxed — and she actually laughed a little and said, “It’s all good. Joey is here, and it’s taken care of.” I relaxed too. I knew Joey, I knew what “it’s taken care of” meant, and I knew that if the belligerent student was smart enough to get into college, he would be smart enough to stay away from the dorm going forward. He was.
Joey Jerome was about 50 at that time, he was a cop at TC3, and we had a long and rich history. His brother, Gabe, was my best pal, and I was jealous when he got another little brother in 1960, when we were 4. Gabe, Johnny and Joey went to Dryden High School, and longtime coach Gary Foote wrote, “I had the pleasure and privilege to have coached Gabe and Joe back in the 1970’s, and they were - pound for pound - two of the toughest guys you would ever meet! I coached them in football and wrestling, and they participated with an intense interest in winning. Extremely coachable, they competed at a high level and we never had to worry about them giving less than 100 percent.”
Joe graduated in 1978 and would go on to wrestle at TC3. He worked in various capacities in law enforcement, and as an employee in facilities for some of the toughest and most dangerous incarcerated youth, he found himself in many situations where “talking it out” was not an option. We played softball together, I would see him periodically, and it was not uncommon to see him looking like he had been in a scrap. I’d ask him about it, and he’d shrug and say that it was part of the job. He did, however, clean up nicely, and I was pleased to get an invitation to his wedding in 1986.
Joey and I spent some intense time together in 1998, as he was having a very difficult time dealing with the fact that Gabe had been blinded — and nearly killed — when he was shot in a turkey hunting accident. The brothers had spent thousands of hours hunting and fishing together — they were professional guides in both capacities — and Joe’s empathy for and connection with his brother was so deep that he was having a very rough time coming to terms with Gabe’s new reality. Ultimately, he came to realize that Gabe’s disability would not translate to inability, and the two went on to hunt and fish throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Joe would stay connected to wrestling as a coach, and his son, Anthony, would compete at the Division 1 level at Binghamton University.
Those lessons about perseverance and adjusting to a new normal would serve Joey well in his 5-year battle with ALS. As the disease progressed, Joe said goodbye to various pieces of what made him who he was. He could no longer drive, he took early retirement, he had increasing difficulty speaking and holding his guns or his fishing rods, and it was very difficult for his friends and loved ones to watch the toughest guy they knew in such a state of decline.
Enter Sandra Jerome, Joey’s wife. I celebrated with them in 1986, and when we all heard her say “For better or for worse, in sickness or in health,” nobody could have guessed how heroically she would step up to manifest that promise. For the first several years after Joe’s diagnosis, Sandra was more like a second set of hands. In the middle stages, she was helping him in more ways, and in the past few months she was getting him in and out of bed, in and out of their car and boat, driving to Florida, holding and aiming his gun and fishing rod, shivering with him in the woods, using a hydraulic lift to get him where he needed to be and giving her all to help him squeeze every drop out this gift we call life.
Last week, on the evening before Joey passed, the new grandparents were together (their daughter, Tania, recently gifted them with little Aiden), with Sandra reading from the book Gabe released in his honor last May. I helped out with that book, so hearing that it helped Joey move along made me cry a little more.
I don’t know if there are deer or fish or turkeys in the Afterlife, but if there are, them sonsabitches had better watch out…