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Remembering the good works of East Austin’s smiling Joe Sanchez

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Joe Sanchez greets members of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Austin on a Sunday morning before Mass in 1997.

Some remember Joe Sanchez for his wide, ever-present smile. To others, he was a beloved uncle or friend. To still others, Sanchez was one of the few men they knew who had served in active duty during World War II.

Sanchez, who worked for 36 years as a photo tech at the Austin American-Statesman and remained an active member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in East Austin, where he served as a deacon, died Oct. 9 at age 95.

"He's the community saint,'' the Rev. Bill Elliott of Our Lady of Guadalupe told the American-Statesman in 1997. For decades, Sanchez greeted everyone at the church’s door. "He has been the voice of justice and kindness. We can call him at any hour for his help and he's there.''

“Ah, Joe was a good man,” says Arnold Garcia, former editorial page editor of the American-Statesman. Sanchez “worked in the photo department when I got there in 1974. He was very generous to me in getting to know not only the rhythms of the newsroom, but in helping me figure out who did what on the Latino east side — a community largely ignored by the newspaper then. Ignored, except for the activities of ‘the East Austin Gun and Knife Club,’ as it was called. Good man.”

Sanchez was born in San Antonio on Nov. 26, 1924, the last of the eight children of Fermin and Crespina Sanchez. At age 19, he signed up for the Army Special Forces, a rapid response team tapped to intervene in critical situations around the world.

As a youth in Austin, he played baseball on the wide median of East Avenue, known as “La Calle Ancha,” while others watched from their porches. Sanchez's father was part of the crew that paved East Avenue. Later, that street and its meeting-place median was ripped up to make way for Interstate 35.

As recorded in the online Mission Funeral Home tribute archive, Sanchez told family and friends that he and his company were among the first to land on the beaches in the Pacific where the Japanese fought the Filipinos.

After coming back from the war, Sanchez was hired by the American-Statesman in 1946. A trailblazer, he would have worked closely with Neal Douglass, who started the photo department only 12 years earlier in 1934. He served not only as a photo tech, but also eventually as a special events coordinator.

He worked at the newspaper’s 1936 building located at West Seventh and Colorado streets and at its 1953 replacement at West Fourth and Guadalupe streets. He retired in 1982, two years after the newspaper moved to its current building south of Lady Bird Lake.

“He was the photo lab tech at the old building,” says former photographer Larry Kolvoord, who was hired by the newspaper as a freelancer in the 1970s to shoot high school football games. “I remember Joe was always friendly to me and he was always smiling and accommodating when I had questions. I didn't see him much because the freelance work usually meant I was working late at night in the lab after Joe and other photo staffers had gone home for the day. I also realized that Joe had lots of energy and therefore responsibilities and obligations in other departments at the paper besides photo.”

One of the most memorable events that Sanchez coordinated was on Jan. 18, 1956, when he hosted Elvis Presley, age 21, as an “extra act” for a Hank Snow concert at the long-gone City Coliseum (1949-2002) on the south shore of the Colorado River. According to his family, Sanchez told Presley, on the cusp of superstardom, before he took the stage: “to not be nervous, but to just go out there, do his thing and shake it up.”

“We certainly all loved and admired Joe,” said former American-Statesman political cartoonist Ben Sargent. “He was extraordinarily kind, helpful and almost courtly in his dealings with his colleagues. I also remember that he lived for many years in a little house on East Sixth Street, and that he told me, as the area began to gentrify, that he would get offers for the property. He says he regularly replied that the price was a million dollars, and I don't believe there were takers.”

In 1997, crews of volunteers gathered at Sanchez’s East Sixth Street house to repair it.

“It is Joe Sanchez's nature, as he walks through his home that is falling apart, that he talks about the needs of the elderly and the poor and his calling to help,” reporter Ricardo Gandara wrote in the American-Statesman. “Pans and buckets are scattered to catch rain water from his caving roof. The walls in some rooms of the 111-year-old house are crumbling and the ceiling is peeling. Sanchez, however, is concerned about others.

“He won't tell you this, but on any given day he is passing out prayer books to inmates at the Travis County detention center, or praying the rosary at funeral services for a parishioner or giving Holy Communion to a homebound person. He is driving fellow senior citizens to the grocery store or serving on a neighborhood committee that has been assembled to correct some problem. Sanchez is always where his neighborhood and his church need him, while his own needs go unmet.”

A mass of Christian burial was said for Sanchez on Oct. 15, after which he was buried with military honors at Assumption Cemetery.

“Uncle Joe” is survived by 18 nieces and nephews, 76 great-nieces and great-nephews and 17 great-great-nieces and great-great-nephews.

“Oh, if he only knew how much he is being missed by so many,” says his niece Irene Sanchez. “You see, Uncle Joe was a special kind of person. He loved, loved, loved people and he delighted in being of service to them. Whether it was at his job or at his church, Uncle Joe was ready to answer the call for action. Through his good works, praise and worship, I saw firsthand how putting faith into action is what it’s all about.

“Yes, life will certainly be different without our Uncle Joe, but I thank God for creating a man like him who so profoundly touched our lives.”

Joe Sanchez was known as a "community angel" and was a legend around the neighborhood of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He also worked for 36 years as a photo tech at the American-Statesman and served in World War II.