Joe Townsend Jr. was the third person we met when my wife, Joan, and I moved to the North Fork in 1977. That’s because he was the nephew of the first two people we met, Barbara and Stuart Dorman, publishers of The Suffolk Times, the community newspaper we purchased in partnership with Joan’s brother David.
Joe was also, coincidentally, the 32-year-old mayor of Greenport, and it was in that official capacity that he trudged up the stairs to my second-floor office the first Thursday the paper came out under our ownership. “I have some bad news for you,” he said, settling into the chair across from my desk.
It turned out the story I’d written that week about the Village Board’s passage of numerous agenda items — including one related to a major new condominium development on the shores of Stirling Basin — was wrong for one very salient reason: The meeting in question was an executive session at which the agenda was set for the Village Board’s official monthly meeting the following week. (Oops!) Accordingly, the second edition under our ownership contained one very embarrassing correction.
Thus was born a 42-year friendship that ended with Joe’s death at the age of 74, a victim of ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Capturing Joe’s essence is hardly possible in this limited space. And that’s because he was so many things to so many people. The short list: husband, father, brother, elected official, civic leader, business leader, real estate investor, environmentalist, patron of the arts, intellectual, voracious reader, world-class athlete, etc., etc.
Joan and I had several occasions over the years to travel with Joe and his wife, Nancy. And if there was a common thread to those trips — to the Caribbean, The Bahamas, Mexico, Canada, Everglades National Park and the Adirondack mountains — it is captured by the phrase “Where’s Joe?” And that’s because more often than not he was off exploring on his own, whether it was underwater with a mask, snorkel and fins or down a winding trail leading who knows where.
Another trait of Joe’s that affected me directly was his fierce competitiveness. Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s we were both pretty decent tennis players and we met five consecutive years in the men’s singles finals of the Southold Town summer tennis tournament. The final tally: Townsend 5, Gustavson 0. And it was that same competitiveness that made Joe a national class oarsman well into his late 60s, when ALS forced him into retirement.
Ironically and tragically, it was ALS that helped define Joe in the end. It’s an insidious disease and it would have been easy for him to yield to it, but he did just the opposite. He fought the disease every inch of the way, beginning with an experimental clinical trial at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City after the original diagnosis two and a half years ago. Even as his body began to shut down, he remained as active as humanly possible via physical therapy, including swimming weekly in Peconic Landing’s indoor pool. Even in the final weeks of his life he fiercely resisted hospice care because it would have meant abandoning the Columbia Presbyterian trial.
No, Joe Townsend never, ever gave up. The same man who wouldn’t think about quitting on a tennis court or in a rowing shell refused to give up on life. And for that reason, among many others, I will admire and love him for the rest of my days.
Photo caption: Joe Townsend pictured in 1987. (Courtesy photo)