Joe Collins won’t say good-bye

Joe Collins stares out the window of his hospital room and thinks about good-byes. “I don’t like good-byes,’’ he says. “Good-byes are tough. This last one was very tough.’’

The “last one” was his most recent good-bye to Guatemala. To the hundreds, maybe thousands, thousands of men and women and children this unlikely humanitarian from Morristown has helped for more than a decade.

But a few moments after talking about good-byes, this former U.S. Marine and saloon-keeper allows himself to wonder whether he might make it back to the rain-forest villages where he has arranged to build more than 600 homes and a school and established a medical clinic for the indigenous Mayans, the poorest people in the strife-torn nation. “I’d like to see it again,” he says, his eyes still on the window.

Joe Collins, left, with Paul Farmer, center, and Darron Collins, the president of The College of the Atlantic
Joe Collins, left, with Paul Farmer, center, and Darron Collins, the president of The College of the Atlantic

I am sitting next to his bed in the oncology wing of Morristown Medical Center. I see how thin and pale he is. I hear the pain is in his voice. The colon cancer that began almost a decade ago has returned with ferocity and it has spread. I say, “Hey, Joe, I promise that if you go back there again, this time I’m coming with you.’’

Dumb, I know. But I want him to live. Not just because I’ve known and liked him for almost 20 years, but because of the work he does. He is a necessary man.

“I know what the doctors are telling me, but, maybe, you know, something will happen, the chemotherapy will work, at least for a little while, and I’ll be able to go back,” Joe says. “But I’m only going to go back if I’m in recovery mode. I don’t want to say good-bye again if I’m very sick.’’

He wasn’t a necessary man when I met him. Just interesting. A good story. A private detective who specialized in finding the birth parents of adopted children. After I wrote a piece about an adoptive mother who was looking for her daughter’s twin, he called me and said flatly, “I found the twin.’’

He was good at what he did. He helped reunite 3,000 families. He took up the business in 1988 after the he left the bar he ran with his brother. The Collins Pub is still on Speedwell Avenue in Morristown. Running the bar was a good time, he says, but it led to his alcoholism. It ruined two marriages.

In 1999, he visited his son Darron who was conducting anthropological research in Guatemala for a doctoral degree he later earned from Tulane. Joe was shocked by the poverty he saw. He says he had to do something.

After volunteering with an organization that built homes in Guatemala, he struck out on his own, creating the From Houses to Homes Guatemala. It has attracted nearly 2,000 volunteers from throughout the world who pay $500 for the privilege of flying on their dime to the Central American country to help build new homes for the native families.

The school Joe Collins built
The school Joe Collins built

Just before his latest hospitalization, Collins—who was awarded Guatemala’s most prestigious human rights honor—returned from the opening of his school that already has enrolled 124 students. Then he went to Maine where his son is now president of the College of the Atlantic. He attended the commencement and met the speaker– Paul Farmer, the physician and activist internationally known for his work trying to provide health care in Haiti.

Farmer gave Joe an autographed copy of his newest book, “To Repair the World.” In his inscription to Joe, Farmer expressed his “admiration for your wonderful work in Guatemala.’’ Joe keeps it on his hospital bed and shows it to visitors.

Joe Collins remains co-executive director of From Houses to Homes Guatemala with Judy Baker of Mt. Tabor, an old friend who adopted two Guatemalan children. He has worked hard to turn his passion into an institution, complete with a board of directors to ensure the work goes on without him.

The medical clinic Joe Collins started
The medical clinic Joe Collins started

But he’s not ready to say good-bye. Collins says his doctors offered what he called a “last-ditch” chemotherapy that, while not curing him, may arrest the spread. Let him live a little longer.

“So, maybe I can go back to work for a little while. Maybe go back to Guatemala. I’ll do it, I’ll take the chemo, so I can say I did everything I could to stay alive.’’


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  1. As the adoption reform community in and beyond NJ became aware of Joe’s passing into Glory, one-liners started coming in: “He was the one who found my daughter.” “He helped us with our search years ago.” “Remarkable achievements. RIP indeed.” “Such a great man truly lives in Glory now.”
    About 20 years ago, Joe called one day out of the blue to tell me he was a Morristown resident who’d done a search for an adopted family member, ‘found it rewarding for his relative and for himself, as well. He wanted to help more people and asked me to share his name with folks having a hard time finding relatives from whom they’d been separated for years by NJ’s sealed (birth) records law. He helped dozens, then hundreds, until the number grew to 3,000 connections made by his expertise in adoption genealogy. He had an astounding success rate with very few “No”s from those he found on behalf of one desiring to know who was on the other side of their sealed record.
    His work was driven by his interest in the subject (having no personal connection with adoption other than helping his kin find her family of origin) and by his conviction that he was doing what God had given him the ability to do — with skill and devotion.
    Joe’s humility was as deep as his heart was open to serve. He had the courage of his convictions and knew that the meaning of his work would outlast his time on earth.
    The healing Joe brought to family relationships severed by a law enacted to prevent public access to personal information will have repercussions through generations, just as the hope and dignity that “From Houses to Homes” has brought a community in Guatemala will affect generations in that setting.
    Joe’s life has blessed the lives of countless individuals and families who will never forget him. Because his priorities were God-driven, clear and motivated by affection and respect for the family of humanity, Joe’s work will live well beyond this morning’s memorial service celebrating his life.

  2. Pam’s heartfelt and touching description of Joe put into words what so many of us feel about this incredible man. I met Joe about 20 years ago via some long-forgotten adoption-related event. Although he did not conduct a search for my natural family as I had already been reunited, we remained friendsby speaking, emailing, an occasional lunch date. He inspired me with his love and devotion to the people of his beloved Guatemala, as well as his humility and selflessness. Meeting his family last night and learning more about my friend through their shared reminiscences was a privilege. This soft-spoken man with a grand sense of humor will continue to inspire me for many years to come. May he rest in peace.

  3. I was fortunate enough to have been touched by Joe Collins’ magnificent gift of finding people. Thirteen years ago Joe found my mother and extended family thereby expanding my family by 67 people (siblings, aunts/uncles, first cousins). I got to thinking that if the other 2,999 other beneficiaries of his detective work only had 10% of the extended family that I discovered then the number of people touched by Joe’s work would number over 18,000 people; conservatively. Joe will always have a special place in my heart and I always think of him when my mom says “thank you for finding me”. Rest in peace, Joe. You have touched many lives.

  4. I have a special place in my heart for Joe because he found my son who I had given up for adoption when I was an unwed Mother in 1962. In 2001 I decided to search and the task fell to Joe. Within a short time, I received the call that my son had been found living only a half hour from me, where he had lived all his life. A year or so later I had the privilege of meeting Joe at the Morristown Post-Adoption support group, and was able to thank him in person. I saw him there many times after. Once he began building homes in Guatemala, I was amazed at his dedication. He has touched the lives of so many people. How many of us can say that? Godspeed Joe.

  5. During the summer of 1994, Joe helped me find Dave, my birthfather and also a Marine llike Joe from the Vietnam era. My life has been so enriched by Joe’s work that I can’t even fathom how I would feel today, had Joe not successfully found Dave and my siblings. The true gift of all of this work is that my children are not “punished” by adoption. My girls know their grandfather, great grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, all because Joe said, “yes, I can find him”. The immense emotional value of Joe’s dedication and success at reconnecting families can’t be comprehended, especially by those never severed from their heritage. Joe was an angel on earth. Thank you, Joe.

  6. I realize that this comment is very late. I knew that Joe was sick, but I only just learned of his death. I can’t say that I knew Joe very well, but I can say that he changed my life. I met him back in the ’90s at the adoption support group that is held in Morristown. At that point I hadn’t decided whether to undertake a search for my birth family. Then I met Joe, and heard the testimony from people he had helped. They told of spending years on their searches, then meeting Joe who made the connection in a matter of days.

    My adoption was black market, and as such, hard to trace. It took Joe a year, but he didn’t quit and wouldn’t let me quit either. He wouldn’t take a dime from me until he had concluded the search, and even then he charged me far less than those more visible adoption reunion services. Once he found my birth family, he gave me the option of making the first call, offering to do it for me if I was nervous about it. I let him make the call, and when he learned that my birth family was not only interested in meeting me but excited about the prospect, it made it a lot easier for me to call. Suddenly my world was filled with a new sister and a couple of brothers, and lots of nieces and nephews.

    I will never forgot where I was in my life when I met Joe, and where I am today. What I owe him can never be repaid. As the author said, Joe was a “necessary man,” selflessly helping so many people. Rest in peace kind sir, and thank you for everything.

    Bob Braun: He was the best.

  7. As I sit here watching a 20/20 special on reunited adoptees and birth families, I think of Joe Collins. I google his name and just now find out he’s passed on. I’m so sad. Joe is the very reason why I, a New Yorker, am reunited with my entire family in Ireland. With just a name and county , Joe found my birth mother on a farm in rural County Mayo. Who else could do something like that? Only Joe. It’s been just over 10 years now, and I have an entire new family to love. Questions have been answered and I’m so happy to know and love them all. Thank you Joe for making my life brighter. RIP

    Bob Braun: Thank you for this note. Joe Collins reunited many families. He was a friend and I miss him, too.

  8. We are sitting together today, right at this moment, my birth mom and I, celebrating our 16th year in reunion thanks to Joe. We decided to look him up today …only to find out that our hero has passed. We haven’t the right words to express our sorrow knowing he is gone. He was an angel on earth. Rest In Peace, Joe. We are eternally grateful for your gift.

  9. I’m sitting with Eve- my baby girl- for our 16th reunion anniversary. I remember when Joe first called me and asked those questions I had been waiting to be asked i.e- do you want to be contacted? I had waited for 30 years to get that call.. I can only say God bless you Joe and I hope you are happy in heaven as a true angel.. without him I wouldn’t be whole..

  10. I am off to Guatemala on Thursday to carry on Joe’s legacy of building homes. I have never even met him. If only we all left such a footprint on earth before our time was up…..

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