Leather gear? Check.
Peppino’s Pizza? Check.
Classic rock? Check.
Family and friends? Most definitely check.
By the number of Harleys in the Heritage Alt & Shawmut Hills parking lot last Friday, you’d think we were hosting a motorcycle rally. But this was no rally; this was Joe Viventi’s memorial gathering.
Hundreds of family and friends came together to celebrate Joe’s life in a fashion—literally in leather fashion—that perfectly reflected the beloved man he was to so many.
“Hey! Hey! Listen up!”
A shout? A command? A whistle? That’s not typically how Heritage Life Story Funeral Director Matt Hollebeek welcomes family and friends to a memorial gathering at the funeral home. But then again, there was nothing “typical” about this particular gathering.
Joe, a well-known and well-liked Grand Rapids West Sider, was very involved in the formation of the West Side Motorcycle Association in 1982. The group’s meetings officially started with a “Hey! Listen up!” So it was only fitting that Joe’s last meeting with many friends from that same group—he’d call them brothers—began the same way.
Throughout his life, Joe was a man of many interests. There was nothing he couldn’t fix, including his 1948 Willy Jeep that he completely rebuilt two times. According to his son Cory, Joe only needed to hear a bike or Jeep coming down the road in order to diagnose what was wrong with it. That’s why Joe’s family decided to park the Willy Jeep on the sidewalk out front of the funeral home during Joe’s gathering. Why wouldn’t they? It has been a fixture in the family since Joe was little and it was one of his most prized possessions.
“Our first priority when we meet with families is to sit down together and listen to them tell stories about their loved one,” said Matt. “After hearing those personal stories, we brainstorm ideas for a gathering or service that best reflect who that person was. We’ve had Harleys, parachutes, model airplanes, boats and oversized stuffed animals in here. You name it and we will do our best to make it happen!”
After walking by the Jeep and into the funeral home, all guests were invited to participate in saying a final farewell to Joe.
Want to write a message with Sharpie on Joe’s black Harley Davidson-themed casket? Go ahead.
How about donning a “What Would Joe Do?” bracelet that his family had specially made for the day? Have at it.
Take a bite of a Payday candy bar or Peppino’s Pizza or toast with ginger ale—all Joe’s favorites—in memory of his life. Write a word on the board that best describes Joe. Rev a motorcycle engine. Tell a story about Joe during the memory sharing time.
“‘Enter to Participate’ is written on our front doors,” Matt said. “Our greatest hope for a gathering like this is that family members and friends all get a part to play in memorializing and remembering their loved one.”
During the gathering, family members and friends shared their favorite memories of Joe and reminisced about annual motorcycle trips to the U.P., funny songs he made up at work, his generosity, his acceptance of people no matter who they were, and his overwhelming love for his wife Nancy and his family.
“It only took me five minutes to fall in love with Joe,” shared his step-daughter Kylee Purucker. She told the packed room (standing-room only!) that she started calling him “Papa Joe” within hours of first meeting him. “Family was the most important thing in the world to him and his family wasn’t limited by blood.”
“I am a better man for having known Joe,” said Tyler Brown, Joe’s stepson. “I was lost for a long time. I wasn’t the person I wanted to be and Joe found me.”
“The minute Joe hugged me I knew I wasn’t hugging a stranger,” shared a distant relative who just recently reconnected with Joe.
“Growing up, Joe was always my hero,” said Joe’s cousin, adding that he idolized Joe so much that he even got his motorcycle painted to look just like his, something Joe wasn’t nearly as excited about as he was. “Joe was the best; he was the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. He wasn’t tall in stature, but he was the tallest man I know.”
“All the good qualities that my dad had were passed on to me,” shared Cory, Joe’s son.
Following the gathering, family and friends joined in the funeral procession (watch it here) to Resurrection Cemetery in Wyoming, complete with 30 motorcycles and the Willy Jeep. With the bikes lining the path alongside Joe’s grave, the group watched Joe’s casket be lowered into the ground. As they filled in the grave with handfuls and shovelfuls of dirt, it was a fitting final act in honoring ‘their’ Joe. (Want to know more about this custom? Read this.)
Friends toasted and shouted out their goodbyes to Joe, aka “Jailhouse Joe,” aka “Joe the Welder,” aka “Little Joe,” aka, “Panhead Joe,” aka “Paisan,” aka “Little Big Mouth,” and Joe’s most treasured titles, “Papa Joe,” “Grandpa” and “Dad.”
You can read more about Joe’s life and share a memory of your own on his personal memory page.