Last week I was tagged in a Facebook photo, a picture taken during The Longest Walk II in the spring of 2008. It was a photo of myself, my friend and walker-mate Kathleen, and Joe Spado, a man I had recently met during the journey and provided a great deal of friendship during what proved to be a fairly arduous five months.
The status update on the photo — by another walker-friend, Carrie — simply said, “RIP Joe Spado. You will be deeply missed!”
When I saw those words my heart sunk. I had known Joe had been dealing with increasingly ill health, but he was still a relatively young guy and the thought of losing him this early on just didn’t seem possible, not yet.
I had received an email from Joe a few weeks ago. He shared a photo of his Day of the Dead altar and offered a few kind words. We had seen each other over the summer in Eureka, CA. I was working down there and he was visiting friends. His wife of more than 40 years, Barb, was with him and we had a lovely time catching up over coffee at Ramone’s. I remember telling a friend after that visit that I loved spending time with Joe because my day was always made brighter by his presence.
A couple of months ago I launched a new website devoted to interviews with people I admire. It has been a long time working in my imagination and when I was putting together the first list of people I wanted to interview, Joe was always at the top.
Joe and Barb, married 42 years.
He was so many things. He raised a beautiful family with Barb, he traveled, he took many a motorcycle ride, he built dream catchers and snowshoes, he followed the Red Road, learning the songs of Native American nations, participating in ceremony and drummed in many circles. He was a truck driver and a cook, a salesman and a counselor. He told me every job he ever had he went after like he was going to do it forever, even if it only lasted six months. He built up an impressive resume of doing this-and-that for money, something I always felt in kinship with him. He was a Veteran of the “American War in Vietnam,” as he preferred to call it, and became a Veteran For Peace following his experiences on the battlefield.
By the time I had met him he was in his sixties and enjoyed looking back on his life and all he had done, but wasn’t interested in slowing down. “That’s just how I roll,” he said, “I want to live until I die. I think about it as I get older, I think about it all the time, you know? Like, ‘Wow, maybe I shouldn’t go buy another bike or take another road trip . . . maybe I shouldn’t add this much stress in my life.’ But, then again that’s how I operate, having something to do and making life an adventure.”
Later in life he began writing, using the tools of the Internet to create blogs about his many adventures, particularly the blog, Round Circle, a wonderful collection of stories and photos. In the interview he so graciously granted me, he told me he wrote to leave a legacy for his children and grandchildren, that they might understand more about their “Poppa,” about what he had done with his life and the many stories he had to share.
Joe in Vietnam. He was 19.
I loved Joe Spado, and feel his absence in the circle of people I held dear. I loved his honesty and his wit, his ability to tell the truth without venom. I admired his love of people, even when he didn’t agree with their philosophy or their actions. He saw the good in everyone and when he counted you as a friend, which he had in the hundreds, he was true as steel. He didn’t make acquaintances, he held people deep in his heart, a quality I greatly respected and was kind of awed by. In this age of gathering “friends” on social media, of “likes” and “followers,” it’s rare to meet someone for which the term friend actually means something. If you were Joe’s friend, it meant you could call the man in the middle of the night and he would listen to you. If you needed a place to stay, his door was open. If he was anywhere near where he thought you might be, he would call and genuinely want to visit. He was that kind of guy. A good guy. A decent fellow. A real man.
I never got to spend enough time with Joe. I never called him as much as I thought of him, which was often and with deep affection. I will forever be grateful that I was able to spend that hour with him on the phone back in May, to get some of his story on tape. I listened to the interview in the car the other day and loved hearing his voice. He had this accent that was this great mix of Midwest and Wiseguy, it was just so cool. He had a great sense of humor and humility — I’ll miss him so.
On the Longest Walk in 2008. Photo by Marek Nowocien.
On Facebook, people far and wide have expressed their sorrow at his passing. Our mutual friend Julie posted a song he wrote. I hope someone has recorded it somewhere, but I can imagine him drumming and singing these words . . . they are so him:
“Make peace today, make peace today, make peace today, in a sacred way.
From the sky above, to the earth below, to the rocks and trees, and the streams that flow.
Make peace today, make peace today, make peace today, in a sacred way.”
Another walker friend, Marek, posted a sweet montage of photos of him as well. A beautiful blog, recuerda mi corazon, was a favorite of Joe’s and a place he would post a weekly haiku. the blog’s author, Rebecca Brooks, posted a beautiful tribute to him. The comments that followed her remembrance are a perfect example of how he touched people, some of whom he likely never met.
In fact, his last blog post was a haiku, or actually a hilarious series of them. He posted a haiku almost every week as part of that online group. His entries for November 22 were from a VA hospital bed, lamenting the food they were offering him. Here’s the first one:
Dog food on a plate
Me and Joe in 2008.
There’s a pretty good story about his dinner and a Redbook magazine ad, and I encourage you to read it and check out the additional haikus on the subject. It will give you more of a sense of the man than I ever could. According to his Facebook page, posted just a few days before he died, he had left the hospital and was planning a trip to South Dakota to visit a Veteran friend who himself was in the hospital. There you go – that is so Joe.
I’ll miss you Joe Spado, we sure lost a good one, but I know you’re out there gathering new friends and embracing old ones, sitting around a fire with a drum and a good word. Peace to you, my friend.
Read the interview I did with Joe earlier this year here.