Joseph Earl Wiley, 98, died peacefully on Dec. 11 at the Regency on Whidbey Assisted Living Center on Whidbey Island in Washington state. Mr. Wiley or Joe, as he was known to family and friends, was born on July 12, 1922 in Dayton, Ohio, his mother’s hometown, though he would spend over 70 years growing up and raising his own family in Chicago.
Joe spent his childhood between Chicago and Pine Bluff, Arkansas, his father’s hometown. In Pine Bluff he lived next door to his Branton cousins, with whom he nurtured lifelong friendships. Joe graduated in 1941 from St. Elizabeth’s High School in Chicago.
Two years later, he was inducted into the Army of the United States at the height of U.S. engagement in World War II, completing basic training in Death Valley, where even as a native Chicagoan he claimed the nights were the coldest he would ever experience. He was transported to England in the retrofitted Queen Mary luxury ocean liner and bivouacked with his segregated Black 570th Ordnance Company in Sherwood Forest, prior to being deployed to the continent as part of Patton’s Third Army. Joe’s time in Europe led to a lifelong interest in France and French literature.
Following the war, Joe utilized the G.I. Bill to attend Loyola University, from which he graduated in May 1950 summa cum laude with a B.A. in English Language and Literature. His love of the arts extended beyond books to lifelong passions for jazz, drama and cinema.
After college, Joe pursued a career as a high school English teacher, enrolling in a graduate program in English literature at the University of Chicago, from which he received his master’s degree in 1952. It was during this time that he met Frances Sumiko Yoshida when a mutual friend from Des Moines insisted that Joe ask her out. Frances had found her way to Des Moines to attend Drake University after completing high school while interned in the Poston War Relocation Center.
They went to the movies on their first date. When Joe glanced over at Frances, he saw tears running down her cheeks and decided, “She’s the one for me.” Later they went for a walk to the Point. They married on July 21, 1951.
While waiting for an appointment to teach English, Joe was given substitute teaching assignments. One, in particular, for a class of students with special needs, captured his interest, and he began the switch, which led to a career as a special education teacher at Mayo Elementary School, a Chicago public school in an underserved neighborhood on the city’s south side. He retired in the late 1980s.
He found his work at Mayo to be both personally fulfilling and to have made a critical difference in his students’ lives, many of whom came back year after year to visit him. To support his and Frances’ growing family, Joe took on a second job, working the evening shift at the Old Chicago Main Post Office. Through it all, Joe’s disposition was marked by a mild manner, but more so by his uncompromising realization of dignity without costing others their own.
While Joe could be critical of institutional discrimination and failings, and of those who perpetuated these inequities, he was never one to condemn a fellow human being despite their flaws. Instead, he sought to act with goodwill and peace toward all.
Even into his 90s, Joe cherished community, giving weekly poetry readings and teaching computer skills to other residents at Montgomery Place, a continuing care community where he and Frances lived from 2001-2014. One of their greatest joys while living there was a wonderful view of the Point, the scene of their first date more than 50 years earlier. Following Frances’ death and after almost 70 years in Chicago, Joe moved to Washington State.
Above all, Joe’s life was rooted in family. While he certainly took great pride in the many and varied professional accomplishments of his eight children, he was made most content by their devotion to one another. This deep family bond, nurtured and well-tended, has been the base from which Joe’s children and now numerous adult grandchildren have served communities across the country.
Joe is survived by seven children and their spouses, his sister-in-law and her four children and their families, 19 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife of 63 years, Frances, his two younger brothers James Alexander and Byron Anthony, and his first-born son, Joseph Byron. Had his wish been for a burial and epitaph, one of Joe’s fondest sayings about his relationship to family surely would have filled the inscription: Here lies “The Richest Man in the World.” As an alternative, he might have considered “Getting old isn’t for sissies.”
If you would like to honor Joe, a donation may be made to the Frances and Joseph Wiley Memorial Scholarship Fund at St. Thomas the Apostle School. Checks can be made out to “St. Thomas the Apostle School” with “In Memory of Joseph Wiley” in the memo line. Please mail checks to: St. Thomas the Apostle School, Attn: Mary Alice Howard, 5467 S. Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago, IL, 60615.