Remembering the Life of a Southern Tier Treasure and WWII Hero [PHOTOS]
When Joseph Stulir of Endwell died on Thursday, November 4, 2021, the Southern Tier lost a true treasure and a World War II hero.
While his family lost a father, grandfather, uncle, and cousin, I lost a friend. Joseph was given the name "Pep" by his mom when he was just a boy and it's a name that stuck all through his life and is what those who loved him called him.
Pep was born and raised in Endicott and served in the United States Army as well as in the Merchant Marines during World War II. Later in life, he would retire from IBM in Owego. He was a husband and father to three and a friend of many.
I met Pep on November 11, 2017, and in a way, completely by chance and wholly without knowing how much he would come to mean to me. I received a call from the president of the Twin Tiers Honor Flight on a Thursday night asking if I would like to accompany a group of Southern Tier veterans to Washington, D.C. that weekend. Without hesitation, I jumped on the chance. I was meant to go as a member of the media, to learn more about the organization and what it does for veterans but at the last second, literally, as my foot hit the first step of the bus, I was pulled to the side and told that there was a special World War II veteran on the trip and was asked if I would be his guardian for the weekend and so began my friendship with a gentleman 53 years older than me.
Pep shared so many stories with my but my absolute favorite was the story about his booths. Pep was born and raised in Endicott and the boots that Pep wore while serving in World War II were made by the Endicott-Johnson shoe company. Each time that Pep would look down at his feet he was reminded of home. His desire to get back to the place he loved and the boots he wore on his feet are a large part of what kept him going.
Pep also had a mischievous side. While in Washington, D.C., Pep allowed me to push him around everywhere in a wheelchair. Uphill, downhill, over grass and gravel, and every other surface in between. I handled Pep with kid gloved but what I didn't know was that he was simply enjoying the free ride and was quite capable of walking. A few months after our trip I was working at an event at the Oakdale Mall when I felt someone behind me. I turned and there was Pep standing on his own two feet with a massive grin on his face. I was shocked that he wasn't in a wheelchair and that's when he threw back his head and laughed and explained that all of his friends wanted to know why there were so many photos of a woman pushing him around in a wheelchair in Washington, D.C. when only the week before Pep had climbed a ladder to clean out his gutters.
There was also a soft and tender side to Pep. In casual conversation, I'd told him that I remembered watching on television when President Reagan proclaimed, "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall!" And I shared how I remembered crying as I saw people allowed over the wall to embrace loved ones that they'd not seen in 28 years and that I knew the Berlin Wall display at the Smithsonian was near the World War II display and how I hoped I might get a peek at the display as we walked by.
As we neared the Berlin Wall display, Pep told me to stop there. My hand shook as I reached out to touch the display piece of the wall and tears flooded my eyes. Instead of chuckling at me for tearing up (I'd done a lot of tearing up on our trip and Pep had done a lot of chucking), Pep reached for my hand and held it, squeezing it to comfort me.
At the age of 94, Pep was still sharper than most younger than him and I looked forward to his cards and letters which filled me in on what was happening in his life and then writing back to him to let him know the latest in my life. I am selfishly sad about the loss of my friend but I am so grateful to have met Pep and that he trusted me to share his stories with the world.