BY ERIC SHANTEAU | GUEST COLUMNIST — “Retired from work but not life.” This is the motto (and business card) that has been adopted and carried on and out by Mr. Joe W. Olman (aka Grandpa Joe), one of the most amazing and interesting individuals I have ever met. This is a story about the love for life, the acknowledgement that every day is precious and knowing that it’s never too late to value these notions.
I had messaged Mr. Joe Olman on Facebook to request an interview. The first ever of my entire life. He had absolutely no prior knowledge of me but was assured from mutual friends that I was quite harmless, as he graciously agreed to my request.
To cover my bases, I suggested meeting at Panera or The Village Idiot in Maumee. Grandpa Joe wrote back, “See you at 4:00 p.m. Village Idiot.”
As Mr. Olman walked in, I had quickly approached him to introduce myself. I instantly felt admiration and intimidation as he firmly shook my hand, plopped his cane on the table and sat beside me, as we both slowly swigged on one single beer. Every ounce of respect and attention I had at this moment belonged to him. Within mere minutes, he was approached, hugged and simply adored by patrons of all walks of life. Instantly, I knew that I was oblivious to the kind and amount of impact he has on people in our community. Witnessing this was as powerful as any word I was hoping to capture.
Joe smiled and thanked me for being there, as he handed me a business card. It simply read: “Joe W. Olman – Retired from work but not life. AKA GRANDPA JOE. Wherever there are young people, you will find me.” Noting that this, in layman’s terms, is his simple premise, I wasted no time, as I took out a pen and one sheet of paper within a blank white folder and simply said, “Please tell me about yourself, Grandpa Joe.”
He took me to the year 1925, the day on which he was born in the small township of (presently called) Assumption, Ohio. He was very detailed and in fact, the entire interview was on a tight timeline, during which he never backtracked. This was also a gesture in my belief as to how he proceeds to live his life. However, I wish to juggle it around in order to give you an idea of who this man is.
In fact, this isn’t a story about then, it’s a story about now. A belief that today is much more important than yesterday will ever be. As he stated, “what happened then is what brought me here.” History correlates with your fate and as much as you can’t control it, you can measure it simply by the moment you live in during the present.
Joe married his wife, Rita, in March of 1946 at the ages of 21 and 19, after serving a three-year term in the United States Army that led him to Okinawa, Japan in 1945 (the tail end of World War II). They met working on a small farm in Metamora at the ages of 16 and 14. Joe worked on the thresh machines and delivered fertilizer to Sandusky, while Rita cooked and made dinner for the help on the farm. Married for nearly 61 years, Rita had passed away in 2007. After seven children, 11 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and many trips overseas for vacation with one another, Joe had to say goodbye.
When Joe talked about his wife, I formed my own opinions as I tried not to focus on his loss. I could see it through his thick lenses, into his eyes and on his heart, that his love for Rita was and will forever be present. This man had a strong soul and thick skin as he held his emotions in check. I felt and knew instantly that he had accepted this fate and was blessed for the amount of years they had with one another. This wasn’t for me to know; this was for Joe to have on his own.
Grandpa Joe is known to frequent local watering holes throughout town, “meeting new people.” Perhaps this is what truly intrigued me about him. It was a mystery to me as to why, in my ignorant 30-some-year-old mind. He proceeded to tell me that in 2008, around a year after his wife passed on, he literally walked through a door one day and decided at that exact moment that he had to accept the fact that he could no longer change the past and wouldn’t allow it to devour his mindset on the “what-ifs” life tried placing upon him.
He told me that at his age (then 82), it pained him to pick up a newspaper and read about someone else he knew or knew of that had also passed away. He said that at his age, this was become too frequent, too fast. This was a moment, in my opinion, when Mr. Joe W. Olman became Grandpa Joe – to himself, to those he knows and most importantly, to those that will meet him.
Grandpa Joe in exactly one week will celebrate his 90th birthday at the Roadhouse, a bar he says he loves for the patio, music and especially the bikers. Still driving around town and willing to live the life of someone I presume to be of my own age, Joe insists on crediting his ability to partake in these events to his health and the good fortune to be in the position to lead it because he is truly capable of doing so.
I tried cutting to the chase and asked him, “Why bars? Why do you enjoy meeting others?” and inquired about his passion for talking to younger women. I worried personally that he would be perceived the wrong way by someone afar and that his good intentions and gestures would be ruined by someone who previously abused these boundaries. Grandpa Joe confirmed my true beliefs by assuring me that a hello, hug or a conversation can be just that – a lost gesture of sincerity that unfortunately is laced with speculation from someone that has yet to meet someone personally, a stranger. But what I know now is that you’re never a stranger with Grandpa Joe. You just haven’t met yet.
I understood and deeply started to wish I had the trust and compassion that he did. “But why young people?” I asked, and this struck a chord in my heart as he said young people keep his mind straight and his heart even younger. In more or less words, he suggested his desire to be around people almost three times younger because he “would never have to hear or read” about losing them from his life. I had to pause for a brief moment, as I took a sip of my beer.
It’s my interpretation that Grandpa Joe could no longer bear the heartbreak that life brings. When he walked through that door in 2008, he shed the notion of loss and instead wanted to gain everything life had to offer – friendship and love of bringing something into his life that would never escape. We all know how cruel life can be, but you have to put yourself in the position to slap it back and pick up the pieces. Grandpa Joe chooses to pick up only the best ones, and for this, I envy him.
Joe worked up until he was 77 years old, often to assure his family had a better life to live. He told me that he often sees people who are retired and feel compelled to finally sit on the couch and have the mindset to do “nothing.” He insisted that this was a major mistake. Perhaps this is when your mind catches up with your age and you convince yourself that life has been lived. Keeping active and always going somewhere keeps you desiring more from life. Accepting what it was or could have been just isn’t fair to the “tomorrows” and “the now.” Life can be lived for as long as you wish it to be lived. Every second of every day welcomes and presents new opportunities. What do you see in front of you and not behind you? Who is that to your left or to your right? Don’t you want to know instead of wonder? Grandpa Joe knows.
Although Grandpa Joe loves meeting people, he especially finds younger women endearing. He joked that he never bothers asking their names because he will just forget them anyway. Names just aren’t as important as a smile or a conversation is. As we sat at the bar, one by one, another person said hello to him. Often interrupted, he proceeded to tell me about them, which debunked my initial thought of him just simply enjoying conversation for what it was and not who it was with. He cares deeply about people and what they have to say and that does not come from the idea of changing his life around, that comes from the heart he always had. Talking to women to him is harmless, as there is never any intention whatsoever for anything more.
That is until one day, when he sat his family down and told them about his love for Kallie, as she had moved in with him. As his family grew concerned about him starting another relationship, he assured them that a cat was no big deal. Relieved, as Joe chuckled, he broke the news that you’re never too old to love an animal, and that’s Joe’s belief: You’re never too old for anything. Ever.
By this time, an hour of my time had now passed with Joe. My piece of paper was completely filled as well as both insides of my folder. After a quick glance, it looked like chicken scratch and scribble, but I knew somewhere in there was legible meaning and valuable lessons that I would take with me for the rest of my life.
I put down my pen and felt it would be in my best interest to just listen to Joe for the remaining time we had. I stared him straight in the eyes and nodded at everything he had to say, while ending it with the phrase, “yes, sir.” But it all honesty, I thought about how great it felt during these moments to feel like I had a grandparent once again in my life. I’ve personally lost them all, and I took what Joe said to heart, knowing that I can’t get them back. I valued every minute with him to now extend what was lost in my own heart.
Joe won my respect. Joe won my attention. Joe gained my friendship. Just like where he was born (Assumption), my assumptions were gone. My curiosity and urge to assume his intentions for doing what he did at his age were relinquished. What lies inside of him will never have an age. It will only have an impact on those who cross his path. For this, Joe will stay forever young.
As we were saying our goodbyes, Grandpa Joe pulled out his phone and took a photo of us and asked me one question.
“Are you happy?” he asked.
I said, “With my entire life?”
He clarified, “No, now,” and I answered, “Yes.”
Then he said, “Then you’re happy with your entire life, trust me.”
As I walked out the door to leave, it was my life that changed this time. I gained more in a one-hour conversation with a stranger than perhaps I ever had or will. Grandpa Joe has lived more of a life in one year than I have attempted in 30-some. That inspired and encouraged me. I wasn’t asked to write this, I certainly wasn’t paid, but what was gained was immeasurable.
Thank you, Grandpa Joe, for your time and newfound friendship. Your impact on those around you is the greatest gift we could ever imagine.
It is my one true wish and desire that this story and sharing Joe’s message will inspire you. Life is limitless and happiness is a choice. If you have one brief moment, please wish Grandpa Joe a happy 90th birthday. You may not recognize his name, you probably know his face, but you’ll never forget meeting him.
This column was originally published to iHeartGlassCity on January 30, 2015.