Mourning the Death, Celebrating the Life of Joann Hale

Barry Shade | October 7, 2014

CWS Emergency Response Specialist Joann Hale (left) speaks with Ironbound Community Corporation's Director of Administration Mayra Ramirez outside the corporation's office in the Ironbound District of Newark, NJ. Photo: Carol Fouke-Mpoyo

CWS Emergency Response Specialist Joann Hale (left) speaks with Ironbound Community Corporation’s Director of Administration Mayra Ramirez outside the corporation’s office in the Ironbound District of Newark, NJ. Photo: Carol Fouke-Mpoyo

On Saturday, Sept. 20, family, friends and colleagues of Joann Hale from near and far gathered in Grand Island, N.Y., to mourn her untimely death from a heart attack Aug. 18 and to celebrate her life and legacy as a loving wife and mother, friend, and advocate for the vulnerable, especially those coming through disaster situations.

Joann and I worked together at Church World Service for the past 3-1/2 years. She was a U.S. Disaster Response Specialist, and I am the CWS Associate Director for U.S. Disaster Response, so officially I was her supervisor. But I never liked to think of myself as her boss but rather as her partner.

She and I touched base almost daily and enjoyed a leisurely conversation almost every Friday evening, during which we would share family news, solve all the problems of the world – and only then get to any work-related matters we needed to discuss!

So I got to know Joann pretty well. But at the memorial service, I learned so much more about the length, breadth and depth of all she had done before I met her.

A tribute by Roger Cook, an environmental activist in Western New York, was especially enlightening in that regard. He told about Joann’s work more than 35 years ago on behalf of the people who lived along Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Love Canal is among the best-known among communities living near – even on top of – industrial toxic waste dumps: waste improperly disposed of, leaking and causing a high incidence of cancer among residents. Joann herself lived at Love Canal for a time.

Cook described Joann’s key role in achieving the buyout and relocation of the people who lived at Love Canal and other toxic sites in western New York. He described how forceful and feisty she was with the government authorities who were standing in the way of a fair deal for the people. A photo was passed around of the Governor of New York with a very young Joann, who had a look of triumph on her face.

Twenty-seven years ago, Joann brought her expertise in technological and other human-caused disasters to Church World Service, first as a volunteer and since 2002 as paid staff. With CWS, she has helped communities recover from so many disasters. The list goes on and on: Katrina, Sandy, 9-11, Gulf oil spill, Irene, plus innumerable tornados, floods and other disasters, both large and small.

Since Joann died, I have received hundreds of thoughts about her via mail, email and social media. I was given the opportunity to share excerpts at Saturday’s memorial service. Here is a sampling:

“To say she was skilled, tireless and knowledgeable is an understatement.”

“She left the world a better place. She was totally committed to the task of alleviating human suffering.”

“Disaster recovery was her life. She had a passion for justice Her first thoughts were for the most vulnerable.”

“She always strived to help survivors get their lives back on track.”

“She had a keen sense of the dynamics of a community. She knew when to wait to speak and then knew exactly what to say when she spoke.”

“She was always training others.  She was a mentor to everyone she worked with.”

“She always thought ‘partnership.’”

“She brought love, light and humor to every situation. She was extraordinarily compassionate. She blessed the lives of many. She was an encourager, sometimes a prodder, always a motivator.”

Rest in peace, dear Joann. We will strive to carry your legacy forward.

Barry Shade is the CWS Associate Director for U.S. Disaster Response.