Date: Tuesday, March 1, 2016
RESNA and the entire assistive technology field suffered a great loss last week. Joey Wallace, Project Director of the RESNA Catalyst Project, died unexpectedly on February 24th. Joey was loved and respected by many people, and was the wise sage of the RESNA office. He was, as the Irish say, a “darlin’ man” – which translates to a kind, sweet, generous, smart, funny, cool guy you liked to be around. We were all blessed to have Joey as part of our lives. Thank you to RESNA member Tony Gentry for writing this beautiful tribute, and allowing us to share it with all of you. To honor Joey, we are in the process of setting up a memorial scholarship fund in his name. More details will be available soon. – Michael Brogioli, Executive Director.
Joey Wallace grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth, but put it away early. Son of a doctor in Bethesda, Maryland, with a big house, two brothers and a sister, a maid who was a second mom, and 50-yard line Redskins tickets, some of the passions of his life were imprinted early (Redskins fanaticism among them). Whenever a Rolling Stones song came on the radio, he’d tell a story still remembered with wonder of tagging along with his sister to a 1965 Stones concert at a club in D.C., where the liberating beat of rock’n’roll awoke a life-long passion. Of course he was a Deadhead, even before there was a name for that. And he loved Bruce Springsteen, the Avett Brothers, John Prine, and Willy Nelson. And then his personal Jesus, Neil Young forever.
As all the calls and testimonials began to pour in, and we were talking about the many people who will be coming to pay their respects, I think it was his wife Jeanne who said, “Joey didn’t know how to burn a bridge.” Anyone who ever met him became a friend and he held onto them across the decades. I came into that circle belatedly, just 16 years ago, when he showed up out of the blue having read a blog post of mine, and offered me an opportunity to do some research on Palm Pilots as cognitive aids. So he became my boss, if you can call the gentle, guiding friendship he offered by that name.
He introduced me to the people in his orbit – Ken and Bob and Ray and Ned -- a brotherhood of men who cared with a special attention for the neediest among us. We’d go to lunch - they lunched out every day (these were raucous, hilarious and brotherly events, the likes of which I’d never seen) - and their commitment to the work they did at the Virginia Assistive Technology System changed my work and my life in important ways. In that circle, there was no condescension, no pity, no quarter. It was understood by them back then as it’s still not understood well enough elsewhere that the world throws up unnecessary obstacles in the way of people who have disabilities and it was their mission to fix that. Not because they saw themselves as heroes or anything, just because it wasn’t fair, and what better goal could you have for your life?
In that knighthood of outsized personalities, Joey played the steady guide, the moral compass, the wise man. There, and at the Partnership for People with Disabilities at VCU, where he and I worked, he played the angles, smoothed the tempers, worked the system. As our coworker Monica Uhl recalls, “He'd spend most of the day on the phone, calmly and patiently talking with consumers and families, and ultimately helping them find a path to what they were seeking. At the time I would often think that the way he was with folks was more of an art form and not easily taught.” Like some kind of Zen guru, Joey seemed to do nothing and yet the course of rivers changed.
Recently, Joey and I had dinner at an assistive technology conference in Orlando. My son Stephen, just turned 17, was with me, bored and fiddling with his cellphone. Joey and I shot the breeze awhile, and then he turned to Stephen and asked, “How are things?” It’s the sort of question that elicits a groan, a roll of the eyes. But Stephen looked up and actually answered him. Another of Joey’s powers; you knew when he asked that he meant it and cared. Stephen admitted, “Things are hard right now, with schoolwork and everything.” Joey listened, and then said, “One of the important things you want to learn, you have to listen to your heart, discover what your passion is in life and follow that.” Cliché, right? But it came from Joey, and Stephen was ready to hear it. He said, “No one ever told me that before.”
It’s what happened next that has me wondering, did Joey have an inkling that his time was short? He so rarely talked about himself, but this time he added, “Like me, for instance, I learned that my passion is knocking down obstacles that hold people back.” And then he began to tell a story, a personal version of his life’s mission that I hadn’t heard before. About how he and Jeanne fell in love in the woods of Maine, among friends they still have from back in the halcyon hippie days, and set out on a life up to their elbows in the miseries of the most lost and forgotten among us. Jeanne learning the nursing trade that Joey considered holy; Joey going to work each day in those dark places where we kept the mentally ill, the intellectually disabled, the weakest and most vulnerable among us. They were places of neglect, of confusion, and sometimes he said, of chaos. “What these people lived in, it was like something out of a horror movie.”
Joey saw professionals try to cope by enforcing order, by making rules. He saw them burn out and turn cold. He saw the hopelessness of the system. And (he would give Jeanne all the credit for walking him through this harrowing time) he discovered a salve. He became that guy whistling the Beach Boys tune, “Don’t worry, Baby, everything will turn out alright.” He earned the name he is still known by in Maine and by those he knew at Central State Hospital here in Virginia, the Doctor of Love. He chuckled over that, but Stephen heard him. Yes, follow your passion, son. But if you’re lucky, that passion will be one that matters. It’ll be a passion that requires the best of you.
Most of the time, of course, it wasn’t work that Joey talked about. Over the years I heard of so many good times, raising the two boys he so loved – Sam and James – in Powhatan, Virginia, doing all those silly but memorable Indian Guide field trips, their big old rambling house always full of friends at the holidays, the same friends who drive in now to Joey and Jeanne’s house in Richmond to sing and drink and party, because, of course, Joey never lost a friend. The chain of beloved dogs across the years, and now the puppy Teddy, who continues that tradition. Joey’s precious Walley World cottage at Kill Devil Hills, a three bedroom where somehow thirty people could sleep. If only those walls could talk!
I’ve been writing this thing all morning and still haven’t said what I’d hoped to share: the way Joey changed my life. You see, when I met him, I’d been an occupational therapist for awhile. I prided myself on helping people. But there’s a side to these helping professions that we don’t talk about, where in some way we see
ourselves as different from the people we work with, and that is a moral issue. Joey may have seen that in me, I don’t know. What I do know is that very early on he introduced me to another way of doing my work, another way of living my life. Joey’s way. Which is that Joey simply did not categorize. He didn’t talk about disability. He didn’t talk about impairment, or any other thing that separates people. Joey was the first person I’d ever met who simply DID NOT see any difference in anybody. To him everybody was worthwhile, everybody was deserving, and everybody could use a break. So it didn’t matter if you were blind or used a wheelchair or had trouble thinking or wrestled with invisible demons between your ears. It wasn’t a question for him, ever. That’s a quality you can’t fake. And for him it was unshakeable. For me, it was a needed lesson. I’m saying that I am a better person because of him. I’m not the only one. (Picture at right: Joey with his RESNA Catalyst Project team, Paul Galonsky and Jason Luciano.)
My kids sized Joey up from day one. They recognized the Jedi warrior in him and called him “Joda.” When I broke the news to my son Nick, he said, “Oh man, Joey, he was like that guy in It’s a Wonderful Life. What would the world be like without him?” Exactly. And now, because of all the people he touched who will live on in his name, in a way we won’t have to find out. - Tony Gentry, PhD, OTR/L, Virginia Commonwealth University
Joseph Wallace, PhD
- Project Director, RESNA Catalyst Project
- Executive Director, Newell Fund/Virginia Assistive Technology Loan Fund Authority
- Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University, Partnership for People with Disabilities
- Policy Analyst, Virginia Assistive Technology System, Department of Rehabilitative Services
- Adjunct Professor, John Tyler Community College and George Washington University
Recipient of the 2010 Virginia Rehabilitation Association Corbett Reedy Award for Excellence
Recipient of the 1995 Virginia Rehabilitation Association R.N. Anderson Leadership Award for outstanding leadership in rehabilitation
Many published articles and research in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Journal of Disability Policy Studies, the Journal of Technology & Disability, and others. Contributing author for the following books:
Assistive Technology: A Resource for School, Work and Community, Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company, 1995
Down Syndrome: Visions for the 21st Century, Wiley-Liss, Inc. 2002