At 95, Dr. Joe Box dispenses comfort and grace
EAST GREENWICH, R.I. — Among the many exceptional things about Joe Box — father, student, a master of medicine, and Renaissance man — is the prayer he sends toward the heavens religiously each night before he goes to bed.
“I actually pray that I can do something,’’ he told me on a sun-splashed springtime afternoon here the other day. “If there is a need, I want to do it. I pray that every night. If there is a need that I can fulfill, I’m going to do it.’’
That prayer, in all its poignancy and humility, is remarkable by itself.
Here’s what’s even more remarkable: Joe Box’s prayers have been answered.
He is still treating his dental patients. As he approaches life’s century mark, he’s got the energy most younger men would covet. The spring in his step remains strong during house calls that, for him, have never fallen out of fashion.
“I’ve learned a lot from Joe about how to live a life,’’ said Rick Benjamin, Box’s one-time patient and Rhode Island’s former poet laureate. “He loves well. He loves deeply. He’s just a magnificent human being. And I get to be around him.’’
I have a small idea of what Rick Benjamin is talking about. I got to be around him, too. And he’s a force of nature.
He’s 95 now. His hearing isn’t what it used to be. But his story is a panoramic one — cinematic in its breadth, and remarkable in its longevity.
There’s a magnetism about Joe Box. And over the course of an extraordinary life, nothing has dulled his centrifugal force.
“I have a young woman in my class who has had a tough life managing single motherhood,’’ said Darra Mulderry, Providence College’s associate director of the Center for Engaged Learning, who is Joe Box’s history professor this term.
“On the very first day of class, Joe mentioned that he had served in the Pacific and the student said, ‘Oh, my goodness. I’m sitting next to you for the rest of the semester! I want to hear everything you want to tell me.’ ’’
There’s a lot to tell. Nearly a century’s worth.
He’s got ribbons and citations. He’s led professional societies. He’s collected awards from politicians. The leadership of the Rhode Island Dental Association has named its award centered on ethics and dedication in his honor.
But his story stretches back more than a century to the foot of an extinct volcano in southern Italy, where parents — the children of sharecroppers – were born.
Joe Box was raised in a home across the street from Providence College. His father dug up corpses and then reburied them to make way for major state transportation projects.
His father was a righteous, quiet man. His mother – one of the two central women in his world – was larger than life. “The single biggest influence in my life,’’ he once wrote of the woman who taught him that the color of skin or ethnicity did not matter.
Integrity did. And so did hard work. She believed that. And lived it.
So he picked blueberries, delivered milk, and moved over to make room for the Providence College students his parents took in as boarders to help raise their four boys.
As a young student, Joe Box did not excel. He was bored. He daydreamed. He ditched classes to go bowling – until his teacher showed up on his parents’ doorstep inquiring about his student’s health.
“He said, ‘Would you come back to school?’ And I never missed a day after that,’’ Box recalled of a life-changing lesson that would alter the arc of his life and set him on a path that led circuitously to dental school in St. Louis.
A marriage lay upon the horizon, but first there was a world war.
The destroyer tender that would carry him to the Pacific Theater had a dental clinic aboard. It was near the commander’s office. “He kept on telling me, ‘You ought to go to dental school.’ And I kept on saying, ‘Yeah, who’s got the money for that?’ ’’
But the professional pieces of his life were slipping into place. And, in the early 1950s, so was the most important personal one.
Her name was Janice Drake. They met at a YWCA dance. When they discovered they were confounded on the dance floor, they adjourned to the bowling alley downstairs. It was the beginning of their 61-year love affair. “Our first date was at the drive-in theater on [Route] 146,’’ he said. “Don’t ask me what the movie was.’’
They were married in 1953. Joe set up his dental practice in Pawtucket and for 55 years, starting at 6:30 in the morning, he saw his patients. And then their children. And then their grandchildren.
“We played with the kids,’’ he told me. “The X-ray machine was Dino Dinosaur. When the chair went up and down, I would press their noses and raise the chair.’’
The kids loved it. And so did Joe Box.
When Joe and his wife read a piece in the Providence Journal about treating patients in the mountains of Guatemala, Joe Box raised his hand. I want to help, he told Dr. Steve McCloy. And that’s what he did. For four weeks each year for nearly two decades.
“He would work all day and he wouldn’t turn anybody away,’’ said McCloy, who worked alongside Box in Central America. “We were there with our pills and our potions but he was there really making a difference. I was in awe of that from day one. He’s one of the most generous and most soulful men I’ve ever met.’’
Dr. Cheryl Brodsky, an obstetrics and gynecology specialist who has witnessed Box’s work in Central America, said she expected her 90-something colleague to be somewhat frail. Not up before dawn. Not performing yoga. Not walking everywhere.
“You just saw him powering from patient to patient, chatting with them, telling them jokes,’’ Brodsky said. “He was tireless.’’
Tireless. It’s the word you hear frequently when Joe Box is in the conversation.
The kid who played tenor saxophone on Block Island. The service member who fought in the Pacific. The student who tells his young classmates about the end of World War II because he was there when it happened. The husband who held his beloved wife’s hand until her dying breath.
“My dad is extremely kind,’’ Suzy Box, Joe’s youngest child, told me. “Extremely present. He’s dedicated. A fantastic dad.’’
And with that, Joe Box, the man who has surely earned those words, flashed a small and satisfied smile.
Then he stood up. It was time to go to work at the life care center next door, where he would perform more dental exams, his life’s work.
Most people would call the patients who awaited him elderly. Not Joe Box.
To him, they’re just kids, the patients he’s cared for all his life.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.