Joseph John Somuk, 94, of Charlotte, North Carolina, died Monday, September 17, 2018, in Huntersville, North Carolina, following a 15 year battle with congestive heart failure.
Joe was born July 23, 1924 in Seward, Pennsylvania, to Rose Somuk (nee Nagy – her first husband died before Joe was born) and Andras Halasz. Joe’s parents immigrated to the United States from Hungary - Csot and Eperjeski, respectively. His mother came when she was 15, in 1900 or 1901; his father came over in 1917. Joe’s dad was a coal miner, and neither parent spoke English, nor did Joe until he started 1st grade.
Joe’s father died of black lung when Joe was quite young. As was the case with so many families at that time, Joe’s family was very poor. His childhood memories were fond ones, however. He frequently told us that since everybody was poor, he did not know he was poor. He often spoke about how much he enjoyed walking barefoot with his friends to the Conemaugh River, where he taught himself to swim, and shared his memories of his mother’s love, and the spirit of community he felt in that small town.
At Johnstown High School, it became clear that Joe was a gifted athlete. His favorite sport was baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates tried to recruit him, but his commitment to his mother kept him from pursuing that path.
After graduating from high school in 1943, Joe worked for a time as a coal miner. The job qualified him for a draft deferment, but he chose to serve his country, and joined the Air Force in September of 1943. After training in Greensboro, North Carolina, Lowry Field, Colorado and Kingman, Arizona, he was shipped to Foggia, Italy, where he served in the 99th Bomb Group, 248th Bomb Squad, 15th Air Force as a B-17 togglier and waist gunner for the duration of the war – he was credited with 23 missions over Germany and Eastern Europe.
Joe frequently spoke of his admiration for and appreciation of the support provided by the Tuskegee Airmen, the fighter squadron that escorted the B-17s on their missions. A high point of his life was finally being able to meet and personally thank Dr. Harold Brown, a Tuskegee Airman who drove to Charlotte from his home in Port Clinton, Ohio, to meet Joe at his home. The local Charlotte cable news channel arranged and covered the event last January, and it made Joe very happy. The video can be viewed at this link:
After the war, Joe was sent to Dayton, Ohio, where he met the love of his life, Mary Jo Lieber, of Hillsboro, Ohio. They met at a USO dance, where he said it became immediately apparent to him that she was not like any of the women that he had met to this point – she was very special. They were married on March 24, 1948, and started their family soon thereafter.
Joe stayed in the Air Force for 20 years, serving in a variety of roles in a range of locations – Germany, Iceland, Hawaii, Kansas, Ohio, and Montana, retiring from his last assignment, at Andrews Air Force Base as a Master Sergeant in 1963. He often spoke of the time he shook John Kennedy’s hand during his visit to Andrews the week before he was assassinated.
Joe loved the roles he played while in the service. He set up and ran the recreation programs for the troops and families on the bases at which he served. He also coached and managed the baseball teams at the bases, and told of his coordinating their games with farm teams for the professional leagues. He enjoyed the opportunity to work with George Steinbrenner when George was a farm team manager back in the 50s. Joe also was sent to Germany during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, as his proficiency in Hungarian made him invaluable at the task of helping to accommodate the refugees that were pouring out of Hungary at that time.
After retiring from the Air Force, Joe took a position managing grounds keeping crews at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, putting him close to his brother, Julius, and his family, as well as to Mary Jo’s parents. Family was everything to Joe. He was a committed and caring son, brother, husband, son-in-law, father, uncle, father-in-law, grandfather and great-grandfather.
In 1973, Joe retired from Civil Service, and his focus turned toward helping his 4 children get their lives started. Once that project was well along, the next phase started – doting on his grandchildren. This meant traveling all over the country to visit – everyone always marveled at how he could jump in the car at the drop of a hat and drive for up to 17 hours at stretch, stopping only for gas, just to help out when needed by friend or family. A number of times he and Mary Jo pulled up stakes and moved so that they could be close to family who needed and appreciated them. This took them from Dayton to New Florence, Pennsylvania, to Aguilar, Colorado, to Norfolk, Virginia, to Seneca, Pennsylvania, and finally to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he and Mary Jo lived with their daughter, Janet, and her family after Mary Jo suffered a significant stroke in 2009.
Throughout his life, Joe was passionate about gardening, yard work, and clearing land. As long as he could walk, he kept a garden, and always tended it very lovingly.
Joe was a very caring individual. He was always making sure that he was there to help family, friends and neighbors with anything required. Anyone who knew him knew that his watchword was “Integrity”. In his view, a person with integrity had everything – a person without integrity had nothing.
On the surface, Joe was a simple man. Ngozi Chukwumah’s definition of a simple man describes Joe perfectly: “A simple man wants simple things: a woman who laughs, friends that care, healthy and happy children, siblings he can rely on, a job that fulfils and provides, a wife that is true, and above all, the simple truth. As you can see, a simple man is a man of wisdom. To want simple things requires diligence, discipline and sacrifice.” Joe often said that all he ever really needed was one set of clothes and a bale of hay to sleep on. In fact, he was quite complex - loving and caring to his core.
Joe was preceded in death by his parents, Andras Halasz and Rose Somuk of Seward, Pennsylvania; brother Julius Somuk (Dolores, widow) of Beaver Creek, Ohio; sister Mary Ann Findlay of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; daughter Susan Byrd (Keith, widower) of Herlong, California; and wife, Mary Jo Somuk, of Charlotte, North Carolina.
He leaves behind a son, John Somuk (Joyce) of Worthington, Indiana; daughter Sandra Kern of Herlong, California; and daughter Janet Somuk-Jones (Philip) of Charlotte, North Carolina. By Susan, Joe has 1 granddaughter, Tamara (James) Calloway, and 4 great-grandchildren; by John, 2 grandsons, Luke and Keaton Somuk, and 2 great-grandsons; by Sandra, 1 grandson, Doug Kern (Marcela); and by Janet, 4 granddaughters, Meaghan, Sonja, Andrea and Kirsten.