Columns » Outsider



One of the sadder consequences of growth is the depersonalization of daily life. Small-town newspapers are full of long, meandering accounts of the inconsequential activities of the town's inhabitants. High school graduations, births, weddings and deaths are chronicled in loving detail. The local paper, be it daily or weekly, serves a community function that is more than reporting the news; it defines, celebrates and records the lives of the town's citizens.

As cities grow, newspapers change. Look at the obits in the G which were once discursive, informative and elegaic. Now they're terse, short, and formulaic. Doesn't matter if the subject lived for one day, or a hundred years; they each get a few brief paragraphs. Can't really blame the Gazette -- after all, we're a big city now, and it just wouldn't be practical to devote several pages a day to obituaries.

A performer who had the misfortune to go onstage right after Bo Diddley once said, "Man, that Bo just dug a hole in the stage and I fell right in!" There are folks like that, people whose passing leaves a space in our community that isn't easily filled. Let's take the time to remember two such individuals, Cosmic Joe Bealis and Marka Stewart.

Remember Joe, the free-spirited jack-of-all trades who we'd see riding his bike downtown, on the West Side, and in Manitou? Joe, who worked as a Porsche salesman after getting out of the Army, in his later years didn't care much for money, was never a careerist, never seemed to have a "real" job, and was blessed with a radiant cheerfulness that rarely left him.

Joe was a teacher. Maybe he didn't even realize it. Yet in talking to his friends and acquaintances, all of whom have Cosmic Joe stories, it's clear that we all learned from him. So here's my story:

Ridng my bike up the Monument Creek trail on an unseasonably warm February day a few years ago, I spotted Joe and an attractive women (daughter? girlfriend? pal?) splashing in the shallows of the creek in their bathing suits. I stopped and teased them: "Joe, this isn't exactly Maui!" Joe laughed and waved; a few days later, I saw him downtown, and asked whatever had possessed him to wade in the muddy and polluted Monument on a February day.

"John, if you were six years old, and didn't know it was February, and didn't know it was Monument Creek, you would've jumped in too. That's a great little beach there; next time you oughta stop."

Cancer took Joe a few weeks ago. He was comparatively young, just 55. Looking at downtown's dreary statuary (Palmer, Stratton, Range Riders), I couldn't help thinking how great it would be to memorialize Joe with a larger-than-life bronze statue, maybe by Glenna Goodacre. I'd sure like to see Joe again, with his crooked grin, his beat-up bicycle and his gift for life.

Marka Stewart, who would have regarded Cosmic Joe with amusement and affection, lived for 95 years, most of them in Colorado Springs, the city of her birth. The daughter of the renowned Dr. Gerald Webb, and the great-granddaughter of Jefferson Davis, she was truly the Grande Dame of our city. At the time of Marka's birth, it was said that a lady's name only appeared in the newpapers three times in her lifetime: at birth, marriage and death. Maybe that accounts for Marka's modesty; she never cared much for public recognition.

Although never truly wealthy, she was nevertheless one of our greatest benefactors. She sat on boards, raised money, worked as a volunteer and gave more than she could really afford. Just as there are stories about Joe, there are stories about Marka. Here's one:

In the mid-'60s, Marka decided that the Fine Arts Center ought to own John Singer Sargent's great masterpiece, the portrait of General Palmer's daughter Elsie, which then belonged to the Albright-Knox museum in Buffalo. It took her a couple of years, but she finally managed to negotiate a deal. The Albright-Knox agreed to sell the painting to the Fine Arts Center for $30,000 which, even then, was a fraction of its value. Once everyone had signed off on the deal, Marka blithely revealed that she still had to raise the money to complete the purchase. Amazingly, the Albright-Knox went along, and waited for their money. Thirty-grand was a lot of money in 1965, when you could buy a big house in the North End for $15,000, but Marka managed to raise it.

Today, a major Sargent would bring at least $5 million at auction, and probably a lot more. Thanks, Marka.

Maybe we need two statues.


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