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Obituary: Joseph A. Healy -- Gentle former priest, father, known as skilled storyteller

Friday, March 03, 2000

By Milan Simonich and Sally Kalson, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Joseph Healy could touch hearts of darkness with his parables and folk tales.

Storytelling was Mr. Healy's passion, and he was so good at it that his words once disarmed a gang that confronted him in Wilkinsburg.

Mr. Healy never got the chance to talk to Ronald Taylor, the suspect in Wednesday's Wilkinsburg rampage. Police say Taylor, 39, stormed into the borough's Burger King, where Mr. Healy went most mornings for coffee and conversation, and shot the storyteller in the head. Mr. Healy died that night. He was 71.

Taylor is in custody in the slayings of Mr. Healy and two other men, John Kroll and Emil Sanielevici. He also is accused of shooting and critically wounding two other men.

All the victims were white. Taylor is black. Police yesterday charged Taylor with ethnic intimidation in his spree of violence.

Friends of Mr. Healy said any focus on skin color would have made him squirm. He was the rarest of men --somebody who never said a bad word about any person much less any group of people.

"Joe would be horrified by the implications that race was behind this," said Scott Pavelle, a lawyer and fellow professional storyteller.

"He was somebody who believed in good deeds. That's how he counted his coin, and I dare say he was a rich man."

Mr. Healy packed a range of careers into his life. He described himself as a preacher (he had been a Catholic priest for 23 years), teacher, counselor and administrator. But most of all, he thought of himself as somebody who could tell a story well.

Mr. Healy had been scheduled to do just that yesterday on the Heartwood school bus, a brightly painted conveyance that transports elementary schoolchildren to East Hills International Studies Academy.

He was one of the storytellers who rode the bus regularly, spinning folk tales that teach positive character traits and keep the children engaged during the long ride.

"We called around to find a replacement, but none of the other storytellers were able to come," said Barbara Clark, a second-grade teacher at East Hills. "We took it as an omen that Joe cannot be replaced."

With his skinny, 6-foot-3 frame, Healy was a well-known figure among the children, who loved to tease him about his white beard and ever-present hat.

"He looked like Beau Brummel," said East Hills Principal Richard Nicklos, who went to school at 6:30 a.m. yesterday to compose a letter to the staff about Mr. Healy's death.

"My husband called him the quiet giant," Clark said. "He was tall, gentle and somewhat shy, with a smile like a young man's. He believed that each person had a story to tell and was always willing to tell his own."

Her own favorite story about Mr. Healy concerned the night he was walking alone down a street near his Wilkinsburg home and a group of young black men in dark clothing began following him. He turned to greet them with a smile, and they asked who he was. He told them his name and that he was a storyteller.

"They said, 'What's that?' " said Clark. He replied with a series of parables that, against all odds, broke the tension. They encircled him and listened. When he was finished, they walked away quietly.

"That was so like Joe," Clark said.

Then there was the Russian boy who was new to the school and didn't speak much English. Mr. Healy told a Russian folk tale on the bus and the child's whole demeanor changed.

"He walked into school smiling, like he belonged," Clark said. "He touched the children personally. They are having a very hard time with this."

Mr. Healy spun stories for older people, too. He volunteered in 1993 to weave lessons on crime prevention to senior groups, and soon was a mainstay of the Pittsburgh Police Center for Victims of Violent Crime.

Gov. Ridge recognized his effectiveness in October 1998 when he awarded Mr. Healy a commendation from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

Sherman Nesbitt, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Intra-Community Network, said Mr. Healy also was deeply involved in the Wallace Avenue block club. WIN, which coordinates 28 block clubs in the community, gave Mr. Healy its annual community service award in December.

"[Wednesday] was a sad day for us, but it was even sadder because Mr. Healy was involved," Nesbitt said.

Joseph A. Healy was born Feb. 24, 1929, in Bridgeport, Conn., one of 13 children and the son of a barkeep. His first calling in life was the Catholic priesthood.

He received a bachelor's degree in 1950 from St. Mary's Seminary in Norwalk, Conn., and a master's in divinity in 1954, also from St. Mary's.

His priestly duties brought him to Pittsburgh and Duquesne University. Always fascinated with language, he received a master's degree in English in 1959 from Duquesne.

Mr. Healy's skill as a communicator soon became obvious. He was Duquesne's campus ministry director and a theology instructor from 1965 to 1975.

Sister Jackie Ketter was a graduate student at Duquesne who was influenced by him. "He was just a wonderful liturgist. He was so very personable and had a wonderful relationship with the students. He obviously loved them and knew them. He was so tender and personable with those young people."

Mr. Healy quit the priesthood in 1975, and then became responsible for young people of his own. He married Frankie Power Alles of Wilkinsburg in 1977 and became stepfather to her five daughters and two sons.

Mr. Healy raised his ready-made family, earned a living with his well-spun stories and became the dean of the art in Pittsburgh.

All seven children grew to love the old preacher. Today, they have 20 children of their own. Mr. Healy described himself in a one-page biography as "the in-house storyteller" for his grandchildren.

"Joe went through his whole life without hurting a fly. My own three kids are having a very hard time with his death," said Steve Barry, a son-in-law.

In addition to his wife and grandchildren, Mr. Healy is survived by seven stepchildren, James Alles of West Mifflin, Kathleen Grady of Jersey City, N.J., Barbara Barry of O'Hara, Patricia Taylor of Liberty, Pa., Elizabeth Johnson of Chicago, Christopher Alles of Turtle Creek, and Marie Stangel of Madison, Wis.; seven brothers, Jack, Clem, Mike, Bob and Charles, all of Connecticut, the Rev. George of Hemet, Calif., and Pat of Phoenix; and two sisters, Edna Henchy and Sister Mary Healy, both of Connecticut.

Friends will be received from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday in T.D. Turner Funeral Home, 729 Wallace Ave., Wilkinsburg. Mass will be at 11 a.m. Monday in St. James Church, Wilkinsburg.

The service will be packed with his fellow storytellers. All of them freely admit that they stole from Mr. Healy, whose stories almost always offered a bright moment.

Storyteller Barra Jacob-McDowell, known as Barra the Bard, had a particular favorite from Mr. Healy.

He told of a poor, blind, childless man who got no breaks in life until an angel descended to offer him one wish. The man argued for the traditional three wishes, but the angel refused. Pressed to use his wish or lose it, the poor, blind, childless man said he'd do just that. "I wish when I awaken tomorrow I will see my children eating off gold plates," he said.

Staff writers Ed Blazina and Ann Rodgers-Melnick contributed to this obituary.

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