(This was originally published in The Stokes News on December 8, 2011, in my regular column, “The Old Paths.” Due to the fact that all Internet links were broken to our old articles when Civitas Media switched websites, I am slowly but surely posting all of my old columns in my blog so that they will be archived as they SHOULD’VE been on the newspaper website.)
It was a breezy Sunday morning in Iowa. The September sun shone on my ballcap-clad head as I walked into the tunnel made by the arching cornstalks at the Field of Dreams.
I plucked an ear of corn and guiltily put it inside my jacket. Even though I had found no restrictions on picking corn, I still worried that I was committing a crime. Was that the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson shaking his head at me?
But ever since former Sheriff Mike Joyce had shown me the ear of corn his stepson Joe had brought him from the Field of Dreams, I had been determined to have one. And now I couldn’t wait to tell him about mine.
I never got to tell him.
Once home, I had to work furiously so I could resign from The Stokes News in late September. One of my final stories was about Joyce preparing for a bone marrow transplant and the importance of him being shielded from infection.
So I figured I would just save the story for when he came home from Duke Medical Center at the first of the year. He and I had big things to do! We shared a dream–to create a Stokes County Sports Hall of Fame/Museum.
On the old paths, I’d go to Danbury each Thursday to pick up the public records for the paper. If it was “my lucky day,” Sheriff Joyce would beckon me into his office–a baseball lover’s dream. His cherished baseball memorabilia adorned the walls, the cabinets, the desk.
I never tired of hearing his stories–usually baseball stories, because he was one of the few people I knew whose passion for that most excellent sport surpassed even my own. He’d loan me baseball movies, tell me little-known baseball facts and often discuss Stokes County’s own rich baseball heritage.
Sheriff Joyce felt that Stokes should have a place where local sports heroes and their accomplishments could be memorialized for the public to view. His idea captured my fancy.
I imagined the fruition of that dream. I could see the ribbon-cutting, with Sheriff Joyce presiding and local sports legends present–the Nunn brothers from up Nancy Reynolds way, Kenny Dennard, Bill Murrell, Dusty Ackley, Mikey Joyce and so many others.
I had a sneaky little plan to persuade museum supporters to name the museum in honor of Mike Joyce. I kept my idea under wraps because he would have protested, being the incredibly humble and unselfish man that he was.
We never got to plan that museum together. Just two months after Sheriff Joyce announced in late 2009 that he would not seek re-election, he was diagnosed with leukemia.
I watched him fight the good fight for nearly two years. Although I wasn’t the sports editor, I begged to cover him throwing out the ceremonial first pitch in April 2010 when Field Two at Lions Park in Walnut Cove was named after him. He reminisced about coaching teams there, telling me how he still had the game ball from when his son Mikey pitched a perfect game.
It was a cruel blow to hear that the leukemia had reared its ugly head again late in the spring of 2011. But through aggressive treatment, it was soon forced back into the abyss where it belongs.
And then it was time for the final assault on the disease–a bone marrow transplant that would conceivably put the lid on the cancer and bring Joyce home again to his beloved wife Gail and family, his trusty motorcycle and plenty of good sports to watch.
But none of us are promised tomorrow, and neither was Sheriff Joyce. Before the transplant, leukemia came back with a vengeance for a third time. I kept thinking that surely such a great man who had done such enormous good for Stokes County wouldn’t die before enjoying retirement. It didn’t seem fair somehow.
But that’s not how it works. In this fallen world, the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and as Billy Joel sang, sometimes “only the good die young.”
I was on the road to Orlando, FL, when a county leader texted me on December 1, “He’s gone to Heaven.” I was asked to write the newspaper story even though I was on vacation and was no longer the editor of The Stokes News. I gladly wrote it on my laptop as my daughter drove. It was loaded to the website using McDonald’s free Wi-fi in a little Florida town.
I spent the evening searching for remembrances of Sheriff Joyce on Facebook, taking notes on the heartfelt stories I found there. And then it hit me. I was doing exactly what writer Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) did in the movie that Sheriff Joyce and I loved so dearly, “Field of Dreams.”
Mann collected notes from personal testimonies about the life of a small-town doctor–Archibald “Moonlight” Graham. I had once compared Sheriff Joyce to Graham in a feature story I wrote, and now I was collecting testimonies about him. Both men had dreamed of playing professional baseball.
Here are the last couple of paragraphs of my 2009 story:
Archie Graham makes it to the majors for about five minutes—not even long enough to get one at-bat. He returns to his hometown and becomes a doctor who is beloved by the entire region for over half a century.
Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) agonizes over Graham’s coming so close to a dream that was never realized. “Some men would call that a tragedy,” he insists.
The wise old doctor replies, “Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, then that would’ve been a tragedy.”
Many would argue that the analogy is a good one for Sheriff Mike Joyce’s life. Law enforcement may not have been the “field of his dreams,” but he has striven to fulfill his destiny with loyalty and integrity. A tragedy, perhaps, for Joyce that he didn’t get to play major league baseball, but a tragedy indeed, for the citizens of Stokes County, if he had.
When Mann interviewed the locals about Doc Graham, he heard how children who could not afford eyeglasses or milk or clothing would never be denied these essentials because Dr. Graham would make sure they were provided for.
Similarly, I heard stories of Sheriff Joyce’s big heart. Kathy Grubbs Marshall told how she dropped in one day to see her grandpa about six months after her grandmother died. Sheriff Joyce was there and confessed that he often went by to check on Mr. Burke. He was so at home there that he went to get the “nabs jar” and they all shared a Pepsi.
Mr. Burke was a staunch Democrat and Sheriff Joyce, a rigid Republican. But that didn’t matter when it came down to deeper issues of the heart.
Another person told how the unpretentious sheriff once dressed up as a woman to take part in a womanless beauty pageant to benefit a young boy who had leukemia. Jennifer Mickey Fulp shared the story of Sheriff Joyce going weekly to visit her ailing grandpa, former Stokes County Sheriff Clyde Duggins.
No fanfare, no self-promotion, no ulterior motive other than doing the right thing and caring about fellow human beings.
Was he perfect? Of course not–the only perfect man walked the earth 2,000 years ago.
But Mike Joyce will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the best people to ever breathe our good ole Stokes County air. He was one of the most beloved leaders in county history, with support from people in all political parties.
Sheriff Joyce, I will miss your quiet laugh that sometimes made no sound but shook your body. I will recall your compassionate eyes and hear your slow-paced, kind voice. I will remember your true humility and integrity and use it as a model to aspire to.
I will even admit that I pulled for the Texas Rangers in the World Series but am still glad your beloved St. Louis Cardinals won, for your sake.
I hope to press on with plans for a Stokes County Sports Hall of Fame/Museum, but it won’t be the same without you. I won’t rest until it bears your name, but how I wish you could be there to cut the ribbon.
But you’ll be watching from Heaven, I figure. I’ll bet that somehow you even know about my ear of corn from the Field of Dreams in Iowa. Hope to see you on the other side–on the new paths where there is no leukemia, no sickness, no pain.
And if there’s a field up there where old baseball players go to play the games of their dreams, save me a spot on the bleachers right beside you, will ya?