Frank Gerjevic: Joe Delia leaves legacy of strong hands, tender heart

Here's an epitaph to live for:

"It's almost hard to grieve because our memories are so happy."

That's what Joe Delia's widow, Norma, said last week about going through photographs of Joe's life with his family.

Joe Delia died on May 1. He was 84.

That Joe Delia made so many happy memories is no surprise to anyone who ever sat at his table, and that would be almost anyone who ever passed through Skwentna, about 65 miles northwest of Anchorage, since before statehood and later when Skwentna became an Iditarod checkpoint.

Norma recalled what was an article of faith for cold, weary travelers in that country: "At least get to Delia's; they'll feed us."

If lives have bookends, Joe's were brutal. As Norma tells it, abuse and neglect tormented his childhood; Alzheimer's stole the good memories that should have graced his last years. As a boy, he fled from the advances of a Catholic priest. He went to school with no lunch, sat hunched over at his desk because he thought he smelled for lack of a bath. Later, when he played football, his team, not his parents, bought him cleats. One of the reasons he came to Alaska was to get as far as possible from his miserable childhood.

In Skwentna, he became an Alaskan, an Alaskan many dream of being but few ever become. He paid the price, often learning the hard way how to live in the Bush but often having the help of seasoned Alaskans like Max and Belle Shellabarger.

Joe Delia soon had the hands of a man who hewed wood and hauled water, who hunted and trapped and fished, who built much of what he needed with his hands.

He had a fine sense of humor, and he would tell self-deprecating stories about himself but never ridicule others.

And he had a heart as warm as a campfire on a winter trail.

Some get caught in and perpetuate the violence they suffer in their tender years. Joe never repaid the world in kind for his childhood. "He made the choice to be a good man," Norma said. "He never wavered from it."

That good man became part of the heart of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Joe Delia did about everything a man off the road system could do for the race short of running it, which he never did. He was the checker at Skwentna through 1997, and the honorary checker after that. His cabin became shelter and rest for mushers and everyone else on the trail, one of the first checkpoints. That cabin overlooked what eventually became a one-day carnival of mushers, dogs, aircraft and snowmachines.

Joe Delia was a charter member of the Iditarod Hall of Fame, described as "a winner who never ran the race." Had Joe Delia chosen to run the race, he would have had more sponsors than he knew what to do with and dogs from the best teams in Alaska. But he didn't have to run the race. He lived the life.

The Joe Delia that Norma describes and so many Alaskans and visitors knew is reminiscent of a character from Mark Helprin's novel "Refiner's Fire":

"As he looked into the bow waves he saw the faithful and miraculous shape of dolphins, speaking to one another in chirps and whistles. They had great strength and endurance, and yet they were beautiful and not hard. By observing this he settled a conflict within himself, determining to be as strong as was necessary and yet not to be hard. ... From that day forward he knew how to knit together strength and love."

Joe didn't wear a halo, and if there were fault in his generosity it might have been that he was too forbearing.

"If the devil had walked in, Joe would have told him his horns were cute," Norma said.

"The first 40 days we were married, someone slept on our floor every night."

While Joe had mercy, Alzheimer's didn't. Norma recalls him watching Iditarod coverage on television, and asking what it was. Another time, "he was looking at our wedding book."

" 'This is a really nice wedding,' " she recalls him saying. " 'Who's getting married?' "

Yet even in the grip of Alzheimer's, Norma said, often when he didn't recognize someone or something, he would pretend he did, so as not to hurt anyone. It was as if his innate kindness withstood the disease, even if his mind could not.

His wife of more than 30 years says Joe Delia traveled to the Skwentna country so many years ago in search of "somebody to say you're a good man." If he's listening now, he can a hear a chorus.

Frank Gerjevic is a Daily News opinion pages editor and columnist.

A celebration of Joe Delia's life will be held at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Iditarod Headquarters, 2100 S. Knik-Goose Bay Road in Wasilla.