If Joe Collins doesn’t get into heaven, then no one does.
He died yesterday. He was 72. He saw it coming. The last time we spoke in person, we were alone in his Morristown hospital room. He wondered aloud whether he’d get to Heaven. He was raised a Catholic, he said, and was told he would meet God when he died, but only if had lived a good life.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“If you don’t get in, then who does?” I asked him. I tried humor. “Ain’t nobody getting in, if you don’t get in.’’ I’m not religious but I know Matthew 25 and, if it isn’t a lie, Joe’s getting in.
Joe Collins lived about as good a life as anyone could. For a decade, he ran a charity called “From Houses to Homes-Guatemala” that built some 700 homes, a school, and a medical clinic for indigenous people in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. A country that suffered nearly 40 years from civil war sparked by a CIA-engendered coup.
“I guess we owe them something,” he once told me. But it wasn’t a political statement. Joe was a proud US. Marine and he wouldn’t criticize his country. He did think people in this country should know about what he called the “astonishing” poverty in Guatemala.
He saw that poverty when he visited his son, Darron, then a Tulane doctoral student conducting research in the Central American nation. Darron Collins is now president of the College of the Atlantic in Maine.
“The inhabitants of the area where my son was located were extremely poor and most lived in makeshift homes which were nothing more than poorly constructed shacks with cardboard walls, dirt floors and no plumbing or electricity,” he later wrote.
At the time, Joe was a private detective specializing in reuniting adopted children with their birth parents. He made a living but he wasn’t rich. He was able to accomplish what he has done for the Guatemalan people by raising money and persuading volunteers—nearly 1,700 from throughout the world—to come there and help build homes.
Joe really had three lives. If he had not become involved with the Guatemalan poor, he would be eulogized today as a highly effective private detective who specialized in reuniting adopted children with their birth parents. He campaigned for reform of adoption laws so that adopted children could learn more about their personal histories.
And, if he hadn’t done that, he would still be remembered affectionately as one of the owners of the Collins Pub on Speedwell Avenue in Morristown. Joe blamed that part of his life for the alcoholism that led to two divorces. Still, he was a host who made friends, good friends, when he ran that saloon. One of them, Judy Baker, will now take over running From Houses to Homes Guatemala.
But he knew his life helping the people in the rain-forests of Central America was the most important of those three lives.
“They’ve helped me far more than I’ve helped them,” he told me.
Joe’s wake is scheduled for tomorrow July 8 from 4 to 8 pm at the Doyle Funeral Home, 106 Maple Ave., Morristown. The funeral is July 9, Christ the King Church, New Vernon.