Harry Sy Joe’s life journey weaves remarkable legacy, friends say

He was no “average Joe.” In fact, one might summarize his life’s story as “remarkable.”

Harry Sy Joe of Pine Bluff died at Jefferson Regional Medical Center on Friday at the age of 100. Born in China on Oct. 11, 1911, he was first and foremost an American patriot and became a familiar site at Memorial Day and Veterans Day observances within Jefferson County, wearing his Air Force uniform and often delivering inspirational remarks or receiving special recognition for his World War II military service.

And beyond that, he had a reputation as a skilled businessman, talented artist, dedicated husband and father, and civic-minded community booster.

“I think that everyone who ever met Harry Sy Joe liked him, and you can’t say that about everybody,” said White Hall Mayor Noel Foster. “It was impossible to know him without having total respect for him. Losing him is going to leave a big void in our community. He’s already missed.”

Joe’s wife of 61 years – the former Margaret Howe – died in 2008. He’s survived by a son, Maury A. Joe (Carolyn) of Pine Bluff; a daughter, Dr. Cynthia A. Joe of Anchorage, Alaska; and a granddaughter, Lianna Margaret Joe of Anchorage. His funeral services are pending with Ralph Robinson & Son Funeral Directors of Pine Bluff.

Joe ventured to America as a 10-year-old, migrating to Pine Bluff. Here, he became a partner in a retail grocery business, but still managed to meet a goal of obtaining an education. Although his work duties prevented him from graduating, a shortcoming he later termed as his “greatest disappointment,” he attended Pine Bluff High School for three semesters. While there, he made an even bigger name for himself by becoming the first Chinese player in the storied Zebra football program, local writer Jane Townsend said in a biography of Joe she penned for The Jefferson County Historical Society a couple of years ago.

When World War II broke out, Joe – who became a naturalized U.S. citizen – attempted to join the Army, but was turned down because he hadn’t been granted citizenship at the time. Joe was unyielding in his efforts, however, and when China declared war on Germany, he was accepted for duty in what was then the Army Air Corps. He served as a mechanic at bases in Arkansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas.

“Harry was just a fine man,” said Pine Bluff historian Ernie Wallis, the widow of former Pine Bluff mayor Dave Wallis. “Everybody was so impressed that he wanted to serve his country in World War II. He didn’t have to, but he wanted to. It was so important to him.”

Wallis added that Joe and her husband became friends “a long time ago when Dave first saw some of the delicate artwork Harry painted on paper towels and tissues.”

Joe distributed his artworks as gifts. In an October 2009 SEA Life magazine feature on Joe’s artistic abilities, Joe was quoted by writer Wes Clement as saying his artworks “are something I can do to share with the Lord.” Joe modestly declared himself to be “not an artist” but “just a scribbler.”

Following the war, Joe married, became a father and eventually wound up in Pine Bluff again, where in 1971 he founded The Pagoda restaurant here. The eatery became one of Southeast Arkansas’ favorite Chinese restaurants.

“I can remember eating at the restaurant when I was a kid,” Foster said. “Anytime I got to go to The Pagoda, I felt like I was getting a big treat. I’ve got nothing but good memories of the restaurant.”

“Mr. Joe made the best egg rolls I ever ate in my life,” said long-time family friend Harvey Melton of Pine Bluff. “And he was always so generous. He would make about 500 egg rolls at a time sometimes and pass them out to his friends, absolutely free. He was a godly man, a real gentleman.”

Joe sold the restaurant in 1981 to Edmond and Nina Joe of White Hall, who changed its name and relocated it. The business is now Canton Restaurant’s Tasty China at 4607 Dollarway Road. Edmond Joe is not actually related to Harry Sy Joe, but respectfully refers to him as “Uncle Harry.”

“Uncle Harry was a wise man who had lived here longer than any Chinese person that I know of, maybe longer than anyone, period,” said Edmond Joe. “One of the things I liked best about him was that he always gave you honest opinions. He didn’t elaborate. He was to the point. I thank him for helping me to achieve many of my successes.”

Edmond Joe said his children, daughter Cindi Joe of Chicago and son Elton Joe of White Hall, regarded Harry Sy Joe as a revered family elder.

“Several years ago, my son was given a school assignment to write a paper on someone he admired,” said Edmond Joe. “He wrote about Uncle Harry. I was proud of that.”

Harry Sy Joe and his wife were members of First United Methodist Church here, where he was honored with a reception to mark his 98th birthday in 2009.