Joe Whitty, center, is surrounded by Quad-City area schoolchildren before the Happy Joe’s 44th annual Quad-City Party for Children with Special Needs on Monday at the iWireless Center, Moline. In 1972, on the eve his first restaurant’s opening night, Whitty invited a local priest to bless his business and promised that if he could make enough money to feed his family, he would give something back to the community. So, Whitty shut down the restaurant for a few hours one day a year to have a party for those less fortunate, and he has required his franchisees to do the same. Nearly 168,000 children have benefited from the parties. More will be served at two more parties Tuesday at the iWireless Center.
The buzz that day was that Houston Astros' first-round picks, Carlos Correa and Mark Appel, would be stopping by Jackson Marx's 10th birthday party at Modern Woodmen Park.
They did, and it was a big deal.
Correa, who just finished playing in his second World Series with the Astros, and Appel, stopped in after their pre-game workouts. They signed balls, bats and posed for countless photos. Gracious does not begin to describe their efforts that day.
But little did we know, a certain local celebrity would outshine Correa and Appel in the eyes of a bunch of Quad-Cities 10-year-olds.
In the third inning of that Sunday afternoon game, a huge buzz ran through our suite. "That's him I tell ya,'' one youngster said referring to the older gentleman in the suite next to us. "Do you think he'd talk to us?'' another asked.
Was there another baseball star next door? Nope. Turns out sitting in the next suite was one of the most famous faces the Quad-Cities has ever known.
It was Joe Whitty, the local pizza legend, who passed away earlier this week at age 82.
"Dad, do you really know Happy Joe (Whitty)?'' my son asked with the enthusiasm of someone wanting to meet the president or a movie star.
"That's him,'' another party-goer shouted.
"We all want to meet him. Dad, it's Happy Joe,'' said my son, urging me to make the introduction.
I went next door and explained to Whitty, arguably the kindest man to ever build a fortune locally, that it was my son's birthday. Our paths had crossed numerous times during my days a reporter/columnist. It was usually when he was exhibiting his signature kindness toward others.
I shared with Whitty that two potential Major League Baseball players (one who has since made it big, the other retiring before making it to the show) just spent 20 minutes with the kids before the game, but seeing him drew a much bigger response.
When it came to people, from all walks of life, Joe Whitty always had time to share his endless supply of kindness.
In waves of five, four shifts including parents, we sent kids and adults next door to meet with, talk to, and get an autograph from "Happy" Joe Whitty.
Being the guy he was, Joe took a real interest in every youngster that came his way. It wasn't an act, he was always kind and caring to people, even when they were invading his space and interrupting time with his family. He was the genuine article and he couldn't turn it off.
Joe Whitty answered every question, asked several of his own. He took what was already a wonderful experience for everyone to a higher level.
"It's who he was,'' longtime Happy Happy Joe's franchise owner Dave VanderGinst said of Whitty. "Engaging is a great way to describe him. He was a man with a huge heart, who loved people, especially kids. He loved being 'Happy Joe'.''
After every youngster shared time with Whitty, I went back to thank the local legend and apologize to his family for our party falling into theirs.
Whitty said, "Having those kids want to stop and talk with me means a lot. I don't mind.''
I would see "Happy Joe" Whitty a few more times after that day, usually when he was playing host to hundreds of youngsters with disabilities through his Kids Foundation parties.
"Those kids made that day special for me,'' he'd say of that Sunday afternoon birthday party.
"They're teenagers, busy teens with hundreds of things passing through their heads these days. But when they get together, they always bring up how cool it was to meet you. Meeting you was special to them,'' I told him.
Joe Whitty was a special man, who made a lot of people very happy.