Joseph Manley Wood, 84
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OCEAN PARK -- Joseph Manley Wood, 84, of Ocean Park, died on Tuesday morning at the Gosnell Hospice Memorial House in Scarborough.
Known simply as 'Joe' to a multitude of friends and acquaintances, and 'Uncle Joe' to his beloved nieces and nephews, he was born on May 16, 1928, in Biddeford, the son of Manley and Gertrude (Cote) Wood. Of him it can truly be said that he squeezed 168 years of living into 84 years of life.
He graduated as Class Salutatorian from St. Louis High School in 1947. He visited every state except one: Hawaii. He attributed that omission to bad luck. While in the U.S. Army he was on a troop transport that left San Francisco bound for Yokohama, Japan (and eventually Korea). Soon after leaving port, the cargo in the hold shifted and the ship listed 11 degrees. The ship had to drastically reduce its speed and a scheduled stopover in Hawaii was cancelled. The crossing took, in his words, '22 seasick days.'
Being a combatant in the Korean War was just the first of life's many adventures. Upon returning from the war he earned a college degree at UNH. Immediately after graduation he and a few friends bought an old van, drove across Canada where they then picked up the AlCan Highway and drove north to Alaska at a time when the road was unpaved. They spent weeks camping out and exploring the Alaskan wilds.
After returning to Biddeford he taught for a few years. During summer breaks he ran a program called 'Camp Wagon Train,' best described as a summer camp on wheels. Joe would take teens on a two week camping trip to either (1) New Hampshire's White Mountains, Moosehead Lake, and Quebec City or (2) a Canadian Maritime trip to Bar Harbor/Acadia Natl. Park, Nova Scotia, PEI, and New Brunswick.
One highlight of trip #1 was when Joe would lead the group in an ascent of Mt. Katahdin. One nephew recalls three consecutive failed attempts to summit due to bad weather, and nearly five decades later finally reaching the summit 'for Uncle Joe.' Joe's family estimated that he summited Katahdin over 20 times. Over five summers he led 25 trips and thus greatly expanded the horizons of many a Biddeford youth. Literally hundreds of interesting things happened over the course of these trips. Just to share one: Once, in the Halifax, NS airport, Joe was able to wrangle a private meeting (for himself and his campers) in the airport's VIP lounge with Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. Throughout his life, Joe had the knack of 'being in the right place at the right time' and the talent of taking advantage of situations that presented themselves.
In 1963 he heeded JFK's call to altruism and joined the Peace Corps' second class, a decision that would lead to a most cherished lifelong friendship. He had signed up for duty in the South Pacific, but upon arriving in Los Angeles for training learned that he had been assigned to Ethiopia. After a summer's worth of training, mostly learning the native language Amharic, he was sent to an isolated mountain town 8,000 feet above sea level. Conditions were primitive: The only phone in the entire town was located in the local police station.
While in Ethiopia he met King Halie Selassie, the 'Conquering Lion of Judah,' the last emperor in the 3,000 year old Ethiopian monarchy, three different times. Joe was once invited to the royal palace in Addis Ababa where he dined with the King.
While teaching high school English in that small town he befriended a student (and
Joseph Manley Wood
world-class runner) named Sebsibe Mamo. When Joe returned to Maine in 1965 he brought 'Subs' along and helped him matriculate into Colby College. Subs set a school record (which still stands today) in the 800 meter run and was named a college NCAA Division One All-American in 1968 with a strong performance in the two-mile run.
Later that year Joe traveled to Mexico City to watch Subs compete on the Ethiopian Olympic Team. These few years were to be the beginning of a life-long friendship. Joe was in the stadium and personally witnessed the famous 'Black Power' salute of John Carlos and Tommie Smith.
In the early 70s Joe moved to Virginia where he headed up an adult eduction program. After a few years he moved to Lima, Peru where he again taught high school English, and was in Lima at the time of the Great Lima Earthquake. He then relocated to Portland, Ore., and then back to Maine. He then endeavored to visit a cousin in Costa Rica and decided it would be 'adventurous' to drive from Maine to Costa Rica. Indeed it was. While in Central America, with his beloved German shepherd Bonzo by his side, he was accosted by armed Sandinista guerrillas and forced off the road at gunpoint. When later talking about the incident, he said his greatest concern was that the rebels would either 'hurt or dognap' Bonzo.
In his 'retirement' years he made several trips to Maine's sister state in northeast Brazil, (Natal), where he rode dune buggies, explored the Amazon, and served as a video biographer for Maine's trade delegations.
After being diagnosed with a form of blood cancer and kidney failure he refused both chemotherapy and dialysis, opting instead to enter a hospice program. Knowing his time was limited, he wanted quality of life instead of quantity. His local area nieces and nephews all pitched in to take him shopping, to doctor's appointments, and wherever else he needed to go. He especially enjoyed going out to lunch. His two favorite places were Tin-Tin, where the staff treated him like royalty, and Biddeford's Olive Garden (O-G as he called it) where he developed a wonderful relationship with many of the employees, especially the hostess Connye.
One nephew summed it up this way: Yuri Gagarin, the Emperor of Ethiopia, the 'Black Power Salute', Korean War combat veteran, dune-buggying in Brazil, a run-in with armed Sandinistas and surviving a famous Peruvian earthquake - he was our family's Forrest Gump!
Perhaps it was best said by Carol Lombard, a cousin: 'Even when we know the end is near for someone we love, it's always hard to hear the news. Joe has always been one of my very favorite people. We always had a good time when we all got together and I'm glad I was a part of it. He was grateful for every day he had and I believe that he is well prepared for his next journey'.
Joe is survived by his sister, Joanne Wynne of Ocean Park; several cousins; six nieces and nephew; nine grandnieces and nephews; and a great-grandniece, his 'Little Ramona.'
Family and friends are invited to meet at 11 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 28, at Hope Memorial Chapel, 480 Elm St., Biddeford for a visitation, to be followed at 1 p.m. by a funeral service. Burial and military honors will be at St. Joseph's Cemetery. To share condolences online, please visit www.HopeMemorial.com.
The family would like to thank Beacon Hospice for their wonderful care and Gosnell Hospice for aiding Joe and his family through those last difficult days.
Published in Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram on Jan. 24, 2013