Joe King Sowell: A Life Well-Lived
My dad was born in Robertson County Tennessee in 1938. He was the 2nd of 12 children of Rex Sowell, a Greyhound bus mechanic, and his wife Grace Elizabeth. As a child, we are told Dad loved hunting and fishing. We know he went to kindergarten twice—when his older brother Earl went to school, Dad couldn’t bear to be parted from him—and threw such a fit, the school let them both come.
Dad joined the Navy when he was 17 years old that’s where he met Bob Sexton—on the USS Warsaw. They started visiting Bob’s family in West Virginia together when Bob’s father when he was in the hospital with TB. It didn’t take long for Bob’s family for become Joe’s own—by the time he was 22 Joe was asking permission to marry Bob’s younger sister Sue. In 1960, they were married.
Two years later, William Mark came along. Dad was in the military until 1966 and he and Mom settled in Norfolk, VA. He worked for a company called General Finance—and over the next few years, they transferred him from Norfolk to Louisville, KY to Richmond, VA and then finally to Newport News. Mom and Dad bought the house they live in today. When I was born in 1974, Dad came home and asked Mom if she needed any vacuuming or cleaning done—he’d quit his job.
It only took a few weeks for him to enroll in Painter’s School—and he began a career working at Shaw Paint and Wallpaper Company in Hampton. Dad worked there for more than 30 years—faithful and rarely ever taking a day off or vacation.
That’s what I remember most about my dad—what a hard worker he was. Coming home every night spotted in paint from head to toe or covered in some kind of dust from sandblasting. The kind of work where you had to shower and change before you could sit at the supper table. That was my dad.
Dad showed his love by taking care of you—he took care of Mom’s Mom and Dad, Granny and Pappaw Sexton as if they were his own family. He fixed things, he painted, he quietly took care of stuff. Mom’s family always loved him like there was no such thing as “in-law.” He was just son and brother.
I think Dad truly enjoyed being a grandfather—my kids call him Pappaw, but the oldest ones, Zachary and Nicholas call him Papa. I kind of always wanted to see a little Josephine in the family, but Mark and I both had boys. Papa Joe just loved watching Mark’s boys grow up, and I know Mom has said how much he enjoyed both of you (Zachary and Nicholas) as you have grown into young men.
When my first son was born Mom came to stay with us, but when the second was born—Dad and Mom both came to Florida. It looked almost odd watching Dad hold baby Mark, feeding him his bottle, changing his diaper and letting him fall asleep in his arms each night. Mom said he never did that for us when we were babies. But grandkids are different.
My boys are younger, so our memories are of Dad reading in his recliner with Aaron, taking the boys out to his garden and showing them the rabbits in the backyard. Just this last Thanksgiving, when we were putting up our tree, I looked outside and Dad had my 9 year old Aaron using a saw by himself to cut the base. Dad was always patient with the kids, he taught them how to do things—usually things I thought were too dangerous to teach them, like using saws or hammers or lawnmowers.
When I started writing this, I realize how hard this is to do: how do you sum up someone’s life in a couple of pages? You just can’t. Words look flat and dry compared to a person like my dad. He was dry and funny. Every time our family would stand over a new baby, as nieces and nephews and grandchildren were born- and you have that moment when the family stands over them saying, “Oh, he’s got his mom’s this and his dad’s that…” My dad would always say, “She’s got my hair.” Bald just like him.
Dad was a story teller—he always had an answer when you were wondering about stuff—and he kind of always left us wondering how he knew what he knew—or if he just made it up. So many times—before you could just look something up on the internet—he’d tell me some story at the dinner table and I would be convinced it wasn’t true, “You’re making that up!” I’d say. And Dad would just laugh at me, and we’d never know.
As I watched my dad show my sons how to do things, I found myself wishing I had listened more closely when I was a girl—my head was so far into books that I wasn’t always interested in the things Dad tried to show me—I was typically short-sighted, and of course the older I get that wiser my Dad and Mom have gotten.
As he got sick I think we all just tried to make him happy. To do little things that gave him pleasure and comfort. Buy his favorite coffee creamer. Draw Pappaw a picture. Watch the Gaithers with him. Anything to make him smile.
My dad was a good man. Honest, hardworking. Not a man of many words. I think he never understood why he got cancer, I think he felt it was unfair. And it was. He did everything he was supposed to do, just like he always did. And with cancer, that didn’t matter.
Knowing he felt that way made this last week pretty tough. But finally we could see he’d made peace with it, made peace with God. It made all the difference.
Our family thanks all of you who have come to pay your respects to my dad—we’ve met co-workers we’d heard about for years, neighbors, family, friends… thank you all for being here, it really has touched us, especially my mom, to see everyone come out here.
Finally, I will share that I think of my dad as someone who took care of others, as someone who made things and built things. I have thought all week of Jesus’ words from John—that there are many mansions or rooms in our Father’s house. I think in the coming days all of those rooms are going to get a fresh coat of paint.
–Shared on March 8, 2016, Menchville Baptist Church, Newport News, VA