By Charlie Sacchetti
If you took a look at Joe Smith back in the ’50s and early ’60s, envisioning a hero wouldn’t have been your first thought. “Smitty” was a great pal, with a good sense of humor and would never be confused with a weightlifter. Although a thin, quiet guy, he certainly was a hard worker, maintaining his year-round Sunday portable newspaper stand outside of St. Barnabas Church on 63rd Street and Buist Avenue.
Here he would set up stacks of the Sunday Inquirer and the rival Sunday Bulletin and sell them to parishioners who exited the masses from 6 a.m. until after noon. I remember him scurrying to keep the papers intact when the weather got nasty. He accomplished this by covering them up with plastic and using whatever he could to keep the covers from blowing away.
Aside from the weather battles, his other major challenge was to keep his sanity while dealing with incessant barking and yapping of eight or so chihuahuas, owned by the pastor, Rev. LaRue, as they ran up and down the adjacent yard asserting their territorial rights.
At West Catholic High School, Smitty would become quite a cross-country runner, good enough to earn a scholarship to Temple University. It was during these years that I was privileged to get to know him better. As a baseball player and fellow athlete at Temple, I shared the camaraderie with Smitty while competing for the glory of the same school. We shared stories about our respective coaches, both of them real characters. We also shared something else. That would be a number of trips lasting 45 minutes to an hour while driving from home to school in his old Chevy Nova. Smitty had one of those “state-of-the-art” eight-track tape players in his car.
Kids today may laugh at that description but back in the ’60s that was quite a jump in technology. He used to listen to that tape player each day. The only problem was that he only had one tape that worked, “The Supremes’ Greatest Hits.” Poor Diana Ross earned her money in that car. I remember one hot sunny day, the tape finally had it and Diana sounded like a foghorn on one of the Delaware River tugboats that we could hear from our Southwest Philly homes.
When I said, “Smitty, I think it’s time to get rid of this tape” his reply was, “No it’s just the heat, the tape is dragging.” I told him that the tape was ready to “self-destruct” like the ones on “Mission Impossible.” Joe loved those Supremes and he wasn’t giving up that easily.
The strength of his positive attitude was lost on me then but soon would be revealed.
While at Temple, Smitty enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, better known as ROTC. Those students who completed this program would earn an officer’s commission upon graduation. Back then, that meant that you would have a more-than- likely chance of being sent to Vietnam to play soldier for real. For this reason, most students wouldn’t go anywhere near that program. Smitty embraced it. Not surprisingly, upon his graduation in 1968, Smitty earned his commission as a second lieutenant and would eventually be sent to Vietnam to serve as an Armored Cavalry Platoon Leader.
His platoon’s job was to protect the nearby highway and bridges, removing any landmines that may have been planted by the enemy. This would help assure safe passage for the good guys who were constantly dealing with multiple threats. As with all of our brave soldiers, Joe experienced quite a culture shock. This nice guy from the neighborhood who ran cross-country and sold newspapers outside of church saw his first fatality on his first day “in-country” when a GI’s weapon discharged by mistake. Soon after, he would himself be wounded when the two-story tower, in which he was quartered, was hit by a rocket and collapsed onto him as he slept on the bottom floor. Cut and bleeding above the eye, he was stitched up and was back with the men, who he
led, by afternoon. Our buddy had earned a Purple Heart.
After Smitty’s tour and upon his discharge from the Army, it was time to get back to civilian life. After the hell of war you might think that he would seek a quiet office job, free of stress and danger, right?
Joe Smith became a Philadelphia cop in August 1971. He served the city for 23 years, working the mean streets of some of its most dangerous districts such as 55th and Pine (nicknamed 55th and “Crime”) and the 16th district at 39th and Lancaster Avenue. He retired from the Police Department in April 1994. By then, Smitty had married his lovely wife, Nora, and then there were the boys. By the time they were done, five wonderful sons would bless the household.
So let’s sum up. Joe had fought in a war, worked a dangerous job for 23 years as a Philly cop and thank God, now had a pension. Maybe now he could find a nice, easy job for a change so he could coast a bit while raising those boys.
Not quite. Joe Smith became Officer Joe Smith of the St. Joseph’s University Campus Security Department. Here he could use all the knowledge he had gained from his wealth of experiences and both perform and supervise at a very high level. Joe’s sense of responsibility continued to motivate him. He knew that those boys would have to be educated so they could go out into the world and be successful. He also knew that aside from being a great place to work for a lot of reasons, St. Joe’s also offered a tuition remission program that allowed children of full-time employees to attend that wonderful school for free! Joe Smith’s career at St. Joe’s University lasted from 1994 to 2017, 23 years. Although he could have retired, he kept working until age 70 just to be sure his boys were educated.
Now all five of Joe and Nora’s sons have college degrees.
The skinny paperboy who fought off the wind and tolerated the crazy chihuahuas grew up to be a man that served, God, his country, his city and of course, his family.
Heroes never take the easy way out. Joe Smith proved this once again as he fought the illness that would take his life on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22, 2018.
Charlie Sacchetti is the author of two books, “It’s All Good: Times and Events I’d Never Want to Change,” and “Knowing He’s There: True Stories of God’s Subtle Yet Unmistakable Touch.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org