All Souls Kansas City

Joe Williams | 2/28/1933 – 4/15/2020

Joe M. Williams, 87, of Kansas City, MO, died Wed., April 15, 2020. The family will provide a full obituary and plan to celebrate his life with a memorial service when it is safe to do so.

Joe Williams was always happy to engage in an intense discussion, maybe even a debate, but he didn’t care for casual small talk.  The happiest times of his life were on a sailboat, and he was one of the fortunate few who was able to spend decades doing his favorite thing, with a beloved partner who shared his enthusiasm.

Joe was born near the bootheel of southern Missouri in 1933, in McDonald county.

His father had served in the navy during WWII; his mother worked her way up to a high administrative position for the Social Security administration.  Joe and his younger brother Dick spent their summers each staying with a different set of grandparents.  Joe was a precocious child, who read the World Book encyclopedia for entertainment, and enjoyed correcting teachers throughout his grade school years.  An undiagnosed thyroid issue kept him small and plump as a young child; when it was corrected during his teen years, he grew 12 inches in one summer.  Then he had long legs, and could run fast, but was never an athlete, or particularly interested in sports.  He did learn to swim early, and was a skilful diver all his life.  By the time he was in high school, Joe’s family was living in Kansas City, where they attended the Presbyterian church, and he graduated from Central High, with no particular distinction as a student.  He started attending Park College, before being drafted into the army.  He was not sent overseas, and he always insisted that what he did during his hitch was ‘as little as possible, to stay out of trouble.’  With his life-long resistance to being told what to do, the army was probably not the best fit for Joe.

Once he completed his term in the service he graduated from Park College with a degree in philosophy in 1958.  His dislike of authority notwithstanding, Joe had a sharp mind.  He enjoyed religion classes, finding the academic approach better fitting his skeptical outlook.  One of his professors encouraged him to pursue higher mathematics, but by the time he earned his BA, Joe had married his first wife, Bonnie McVay, who went to work so that Joe could finish school, and he was eager to get a job in order to support his family.  He began at a steel manufacturing company, and finding himself bored, started taking law school classes at night.  Working full time, and raising three daughters, Amy, Laura, and Sue, it took him longer than usual to complete his legal degree, but this also enabled him to get to know many of his future colleagues as they passed through the UMKC law school while Joe was there.  He graduated in 1967, and passed the bar exam easily.  He worked for a large commercial law firm for a while, and then took a position in the Jackson County Counselor’s office.  During all this time, Joe was subscribing to every sailing magazine he could find, going for charter sail trips whenever he had the opportunity, and had bought two sailboats.

It is not clear exactly when the transformative moment took place for Joe, but the first time this midwest Missouri country boy set foot on a friend’s sailboat, he found his life passion.  He never much cared for fishing, or fish, but being under sail was his greatest joy.  From that time forward, his ambition was to be able to live full time on his own boat, and sail around the world.  In the late 70s, with their youngest daughter in college, Joe and Bonnie ended their marriage; in 1983, the spring that daughter Sue graduated, Joe was clear what his next move was.  With his responsibilities fulfilled, he was ready to make his enduring dream into a reality; he was going to sell his American boats, travel to England, buy a boat for full time living, and explore the Mediterranean and the rivers and canals of Europe.  Since his divorce, he had become taken with a woman who also worked in the county office, by the name of Floy Chapman.  When he told her of his plans, she had one question — “Can I come with you?”  “How good are your teeth?” he replied, pragmatically.  Despite that daunting initial response, the idea appealed to him.  They were married in April, Floy put her Kansas City condo up for sale, and they left for England that June.  It took them a month to find the right craft, and more time to get her fitted up the way they wanted, but by summer’s end they were off to Paris aboard what would be their floating home for the next 20 years.

They returned to the US briefly for the birth of Floy’s first grandchild later that winter, and visited periodically thereafter, but most of the time was spent aboard the Lizabeth of Kansas City.  It wasn’t a glamorous lifestyle — there is always work to be done maintaining a boat — but the years passed happily. They never made it to Scandinavia or Ireland, or down the Danube, but they saw most of Europe from its waterways, and wintered twice in Israel.  Joe was known for his fondness for sailor songs, his pipe, and his ability to dive as deep as 35 feet to extricate tangled anchors.  Finally, as the advent of the European Union made things more expensive, and Joe’s mother back in the States began to fail, it became time for the adventure to end.

Joe and Floy returned to Kansas City permanently in 2003, and Joe began his daily visits to care for his mother.  Theirs had not been the easiest relationship during his earlier, rebellious years, but she and Floy developed a great fondness for each other, and Joe never failed a day in his visits until his mother died six years later.  After that, his purpose was less clear; “Once I was a lawyer, then I was a sailor,” he mused.  “Now what?”  Floy revitalized her connection to All Souls with her group of friends and the Demeters, Joe joined the Aging Bulls at church, and the Democratic Discussion Group and Men’s Professional Group, finding those who enjoyed a substantive conversation as much as he did.  As the years went by, he began to deal with memory issues, and in January Joe experienced a disastrous fall, which made his condition much worse.  It became impossible for Floy to be his primary caretaker, and they began to search for the right facility.  Floy became the faithful daily visitor, until the coronavirus arrived, and put a stop to all visitors, including spouses of 38 years.  Joe’s failing memory made even communication by phone difficult.  Finally, compassionate staff members arranged for Floy to be there with him during his last hours, and their time together ended on April 15.

Few of us have the single-minded determination that Joe did, to pursue what he thought would make him happy.  Even fewer of us turn out to be right; Joe was among the lucky ones who was able to live his dream, with a beloved and loving partner, and without regret.  Intelligent, knowledgeable, responsible, and appreciative, Joe’s ambition was modest, but focused; he lived the life he imagined, and embraced its satisfactions heartily.  May his memory remind us that our own dreams often can be realized, through reasoned effort, persistence, and clarity of vision.  And may his next voyage find, in the sailor’s benediction, fair winds and following seas.

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I so admire his spirit of adventure, and I’m grateful that Joe and Floy had so many happy years together. It was a pleasure to have known him. Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

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