Thursday, December 11, 2014

Joe Caliendo passes, marks end of an era

Cross posted with permission from thePurcellChronicles

By Rev. J.J. Purcell

Former Middletown Democratic Chairman Joe Caliendo died this morning. There is so much to say about Joe one scarcely knows where to start.

He was a family man first, the husband of Pat. He was a father and grandfather, above everything. It is the thing he worked hardest at in life: his family. He was a good man, a good union man, and Joe was not afraid of hard work. A look at his hands would tell the story if you ever glanced at them. 

I met Joe because of politics. We worked together very closely during the early 2000s to help Democrats win local offices in Middletown Township, the home he loved so dearly, and in the Bayshore Area, as a whole. I knew him well in this way and that is the Joe I can speak about with authority.

Politics is an ugly game. It is filled with people, be they Republican or Democrat, who are no better than snakes. Working with politicians to achieve community goals is as easy as working in a tiger cage with a half dozen different, untamed big cats. But, Joe knew his way around that cage very well: He was intuitive, intelligent, quick, focused and utterly dedicated to the proposition that the 'every-man' and woman deserved things in this life, and not just the rich and so-called elite. Above all else, he believed in the rights of men and women to be able to earn their daily bread for themselves and their families, and that is no little thing in this world.

I have seen people try and bribe Joe Caliendo, and he laughed it off on both occasions and gave them a good piece of his mind. He liked to laugh. But, Joe was also one of the bravest souls I have encountered. 

I have seen him threatened by the highest state offices of evil men and women, mostly Republicans, who tried to coerce Joe to stop his work getting Democrats elected in town and in the county. You had a better chance of getting a wolverine to back-up. I cannot count how many times I heard that man bark into the face of someone who thought they could push him around: "What the hell are you going to do to me? I don't have all that much time on this earth -- and sure as hell don't give a damn about what you say or do."

Not everyone is brave. People like to think they are, but mostly they aren't. Joe was brave. 

Joe Caliendo (L) with former Matawan Councilman Bud Mullaney
Joe was also tireless. He'd put up signs with fellow Democrats in any weather, deep into the night and early morning if he had to, risking sickness or anything he had to in order to come a step closer to victory. Meanwhile, no Middletown Democratic chairman has ever known as much local victory in the township, which is far and away a Republican-voting community. Yet, with Joe Caliendo at the helm of the township party, victory was always possible, sometimes even likely despite the sheer number of factors set against him and the Middletown Dems. 

Joe was a lifelong Democrat and had been in leadership in the 1960s, 70s and 2000s. I believe that simple facts attests to his convictions.

Joe was a skilled politician and party boss. He did not care about frivolity. He became involved with things he believed were right and did not care about what anyone thought. He supported the NAACP openly in a time when race hatred was very alive in Middletown. And, he was recognized by area and state NAACP leaders for his wisdom and hard work. Joe fought for union rights like a lion at every turn, and supported the working person without apology over the moneyed interests of glad-handing politicians who smiled to peoples' faced and stabbed them in the back quietly in the back rooms. Joe Caliendo spoke truth to power and there are very few human beings in this world that would actually do that.

Joe was my friend. At times in my life I was distraught, he was there without judgment or self-righteousness. I know he would not mind me throwing in there that he was also a heck of a ballplayer, who almost made the old Brooklyn Dodgers before they moved to sunny California. But, he played ball like he played life -- as hard as he could and straight on. No mental errors. If you were going to beat Joe at anything you were going to have to do it, because he wasn't going to be asleep at the switch or make mental errors. He was as sharp as an eagle. 

Joe lived and worked through all kinds of physical pain from many injuries -- but to see him you'd never know it by his face. He could handle a lot of pain and make it look easier than anyone I have known. 

Joe even converted me to being a Democrat from being an avowed Republican. He was persuasive and there was power behind his words, because he was a man of action. If he said something you could believe he meant it and was going to do something about it. 

I have known many people in my life and covered many areas of the human condition as a journalist of many years, and believe me when I say few people are exceptional. I do not care how much money or celebrity they have, whether they are beautiful or athletic, elected or appointed, rich or poor -- the vast majority of people in this world are sheep. Every now and again, a true leader, a shepherd, comes along. Joe was one of those. 

Joe was not a spiritual man. He did not do right over wrong because he thought there was any reward for it in an afterlife. He just did what was right because it was right. And, if for no more than that, the God of my understanding will welcome him to his house, where he is already.


Carolyn said...


What a wonderful, fitting tribute to a unique man! Thank you so much for filling in his history, some of which I had heard from him, but some was new; and, what a great picture!

jcs said...

Thanks, Mike!
Helps to fill in the picture of an exceptional man.

Jessica Buhan said...

Beautiful words about my grandfather, thank you.