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Sean Kirst: The man called 'Little Joe' lived a monumental life

The nickname, the story went, came from the old television show, "Bonanza." Joe Enriquez used to tell his friends he was a big fan of the series, and for many reasons he felt an affinity for the Michael Landon character:

Little Joe.

It is certainly what they called him in Syracuse, at Phil Malara's old Geddes Street barbershop or during his working life or at St. Lucy's, the parish that he loved. His real name was "Richard," which few people knew. He stood 4 feet 4 inches tall, and he spent a lot of his life enduring the word "midget," a word used all too casually by those who didn't understand — a word that minimized the entirety of who he was.

"I'm a person, like everyone else," he told me 2002, when I wrote a column about him for The Syracuse Post-Standard.

Joe died last month at 69, of complications related to a seizure disorder. "He'd been weaker and falling a lot," said Kathi Connor, his health care proxy. She and her husband Bill met Joe in church. They became close friends. Even so, Joe rarely called for help as he struggled with his health, both out of fierce independence and from a sense that he didn't want to put anyone out.

Finally, he was admitted to full-time care at the Cunningham, part of the Loretto Health and Rehabilitation Center.  He died July 18. His obituary was exactly three lines long.

Joe Enriquez, after winning an achievement award from ARC of Onondaga, 2007. (Photo courtesy Bill and Kathi Connor)

Yet he was a familiar figure, even a monumental figure, throughout Central New York. Decades ago, when the old Poorhouse West was one of the hottest nightspots in the region, Joe would often be in there, dancing. People knew him downtown, especially at the old bus stop at Fayette and Salina. He was an institution at the old Consolidated Industries, which employed 370 men and women living with disabilities, until it closed in 2002 — a shutdown that broke Joe's heart.

On the job, Joe worked in maintenance. He became good friends with Doug Vrotny, a colleague. They met one day in the kitchen at the plant, Vrotny said, and they hit it off. They'd often go for bus rides to Walmart, or to eat dinner at Wendy's.

"He was a nice guy to be around," Vrotny said, speaking for much of Central New York.

There was always a wisp of mystery to Joe. He said he was from Plattsburgh, in the North Country, and that he suffered neurological damage in a catastrophic automobile accident in 1977, when he was a young man. It affected his memory, especially short-term recollection.

"He used to tell me, 'I wasn't always this way,' " said Jane Cate, who — like Bill and Kathi Connor — grew close to Joe at St. Lucy's. "He used to say I can't think the way I used to think."

Cate, like so many others, reassured him: He was living a life of powerful meaning. Joe was a core part of St. Lucy's, a parish that is central to the city's near West Side, a neighborhood of rich cultural texture that struggles with poverty. With a group of other regulars, he often joined the Rev. Jim Mathews, the pastor, for beautiful dinners on such holidays as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

St. Lucy's is known for its activism, and every week — after mass — he'd accompany Cate to a big gathering that usually included Carol Berrigan and her late husband Jerry, of the famous Berrigan clan, for breakfast and joyous conversation.

"He loved frittatas," Cate said, "minus mushrooms and green peppers."

Joe also loved any image or video of dolphins. He tailored his own clothes to make them fit, and for years he preferred a Dallas Cowboys jacket. He often wore a red, white and blue shirt to church, and Kathi Connor said she didn't realize, until after he died, that the shirt held the image of a biker, lifted to the sky on the wings of an eagle.

He once went on an ARC of Onondaga excursion to Yankee Stadium for a chance to see his beloved Yankees, where friends took photos of him standing with the famous monuments to such legends as Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth.

Alongside the immortals, he held a sign that read: "Little Joe from Syracuse."

Three lines to his obituary, yet hundreds showed up for his funeral last week at St. Lucy's. They understood: Another thread in the civic fabric was gone. Many wept at this farewell, and Kathi Connor said the emotion of the crowd, in itself, was his eulogy.

"Maybe some people only saw a little man," she said. "But he was huge."

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive. 

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