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Career of Joe's Bakery patriarch spanned 75 years

Joe Avila, 1929-2011

Mike Sutter

Joe Avila, the patriarch of Joe's Bakery & Coffee Shop, a hub of social life for East Seventh Street neighbors, died Sunday. He was 81.

Avila's granddaughter, Regina Estrada, said Avila had suffered from congestive heart failure and was diagnosed with liver cancer on New Year's Day.

Estrada said the restaurant at 2305 E. Seventh St. will be closed today and Wednesday and reopen at 6:30 a.m. Thursday. "That's the way he would have wanted it," Estrada said.

"He dedicated his whole life to his business," she said. "Even when he retired, he would come in once a week to make his pies. He was doing that up until Christmas."

Avila's restaurant career started when he was a 6-year-old delivering bread for La Oriental Grocery, the bakery started on East Ninth Street in 1935 by his mother, Sophia De La'O, and her husband, Florentino. By the 1960s, the family had opened Sun Bakery on East Seventh Street, which Avila bought and turned into Joe's Bakery.

"He was a born-and-raised Austinite, and he was proud of that," Estrada said. Avila was also proud of his service in the Army during the Korean War, she said. His medals are displayed in a showcase at the bakery.

A 2009 American-Statesman article moved customer Danny Camacho to write a letter about Avila's generosity. "When my parents passed away, Joe and Pauline (Avila's wife) delivered restaurant-sized pots of Mexican rice and pinto beans, pans of cooked chicken and, of course, the traditional pan dulce," he wrote. "That is why we don't think of them so much as neighbors but as familia."

On Cinco de Mayo in 1993, community groups honored Avila with an Unsung Hero award for donating catering services to events at Zavala Elementary School and the Pan American Recreation Center's Thanksgiving dinner.

"In West Texas, they talk about how Dairy Queens are the places that you go to have coffee and know what's going on in town," Camacho said Monday. "Well, Joe's is the place where you find out what's going on in the community here."

Customer and family friend Maria Canchola has been eating at Joe's for 35 years. "The food is great, and the prices have always been reasonable," she said. "They always kept in mind the people in the community, in the barrio, and what they could afford."

Over the years at the bakery, Canchola said she's run into Gov. Rick Perry, musician Ruben Ramos and Texas coaching legend Darrell Royal, among others, but that Avila was a constant presence.

"Once he retired, he used to sit at the first stool," she said. "I'm going to miss seeing him at that lunch counter."

Avila is survived by his wife of 56 years, Pauline, and two daughters, Rose Ann Maciel and Carolina Avila, who run the bakery along with Estrada.

A visitation will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. today at Mission Funeral Home, 1615 E. Cesar Chavez St. A rosary will be held at 6:30 p.m. today at Cristo Rey Catholic Church, 2208 E. Second St. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Cristo Rey.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902