Just Joe


What is it about a guy that makes a loaf of bread worth $400 and a root beer worth $25?

To understand how this story turned out the way it did, you probably need to know Joe. And that’s not an easy thing.

In the small town of Oakley, Utah, if you ask the other teenagers about quiet, soft-spoken Joe Frazier, they say the same types of things: He’s … hmmm? … great to be around. He’s … hmmm? … funny. He’s … hmmm? … I don’t know … He’s just Joe.

Hmmm?

“Let’s put it this way,” says D. J. Glade. “You know how in high school it’s not cool to talk to the younger kids? Well, Joe talks to the younger kids. Joe talks to the older kids. Joe is friends with everyone.”

Come on.

“Serious.”

But then there was Joe, at age 16, lying unconscious in a hospital bed with an oxygen mask over his mouth, a bag dripping into a tube in one arm. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong. It was strange, sobering. And without exception, all of his friends thought, That could be me.

Joe Frazier had been sick for about a month and was getting progressively worse. The doctors were baffled. At first they thought he had a virus, maybe hepatitis. And then, on a July 1994 morning, he was in the kitchen, reached out for the counter, and was suddenly on the floor. His brother, Josh, picked him up and carried him to the car.

The following Monday, Joe was still in the hospital. His parents, Blake and Barbara, were told their son was in very serious condition, that he needed a new liver. The Fraziers’ insurance company did not cover the cost of the experimental surgery, and before Joe could be put on a national transplant waiting list the family would need to raise $125,000.

“We didn’t have time to sell our house or our cars,” says Barbara. “Joe hadn’t been sick in years, and now out of the blue they were saying the word transplant. It was overwhelming.”

The hospital suggested the Fraziers ask a handful of their close friends and relatives to help raise part of the money. The neighbors they asked to help got on the phone to other neighbors who got on the phone to others … well, you get the idea. All they had to say was “Joe is in trouble” and money started appearing. The first donations were from Joe’s brother and sister, Josh and Jamie, who emptied their bank accounts and dug under couch cushions and in the back of dresser drawers for any cash they could find.

Right away, the kids from Joe’s high school got together to brainstorm ways to raise the money. They gave $500 they were saving for their prom. And then they organized car washes, bake sales, a rodeo, and an enormous garage sale.

It was late one evening that week, as the teenagers collected items for the garage sale, that Sam Aplanalp, 15, realized something miraculous was happening.

“The football players were pulling things off a truck when a little boy rode up on his bike,” says Sam. “I know his family doesn’t have much money—and his bike was about all he had in the world—but he wanted us to have it. To help Joe.”

The next day at the sale, a loaf of bread fetched $400 and someone paid $25 for a root beer. At the car wash, 16-year-old Michelle Cooper and her friends washed a stranger’s car who, in payment, handed them two $100 bills. “I don’t know who he was,” Michelle says, tearing up at the memory. “But it taught me that deep down, people really do care.”

On Wednesday afternoon, only a day and a half after the call for donations had gone out, the phone rang in Joe’s hospital room. Barbara answered. It was Joe’s 14-year-old sister, Jamie.

“Mom, you’re missing a miracle,” she said. “I wish you were here to see what the people in town are doing. They’ve already raised $55,000!”

Teenagers from across the county, from all faiths and backgrounds, came together to help raise money and to pray for Joe.

“I don’t think any of us had ever prayed that hard or worked that hard,” says Michelle.

Jake adds, “But we learned where real joy comes from. Passing a test, winning a ball game, having a girlfriend makes you happy—but real joy comes from giving, from sacrifice.”

On the same Wednesday, Barbara and Blake met with their surgeon and told him that Oakley and the neighboring communities in their county had already raised $55,000—in 36 hours. Tears ran down the physician’s cheeks and Barbara recalls him saying, “You have renewed my faith. There really are human beings in the world.” The doctor, realizing the severity of Joe’s condition, had already put him on the transplant list. He said he would not let Joe die without a chance.

When Joe went into surgery the following Monday, the Fraziers had already received $135,000.

But Joe’s fight was not over. He was given only a 50 percent chance of making it through the eight-hour operation. And, says Barbara, “If he hadn’t received the liver that day, he would not have seen another sunrise.”

“The first day I remember is the 24th of July—five days after the surgery,” says Joe. “I remember going to the window to watch the fireworks.”

When Barbara told him what the community had done, Joe seemed strangely sad. “I kinda wish I’d been there to help,” he explained.

On a hot August day with thin clouds in the Utah mountains, the Fraziers’ Thunderbird slowed as it reached the turn into the Kamas valley. Sitting in the passenger’s seat, Joe could see the group of vehicles waiting for him at the intersection, where twisting Brown’s Canyon meets Highway 189.

The fire engine and the cars fell in behind Joe’s car, fender-to-fender. The parade stopped in Oakley, and Joe got out and hugged his mom. A dozen young kids who had donated their toys to the garage sale and who felt in some way they owned a little piece of Joe gathered close to him. And one little guy yelled, “Hey, Joe, how ya feeling?”

There wasn’t a dry eye when Joe smiled and said in a soft voice “fine” and “thank you” and that it was “good to be home.”

“Every street corner, every business, everything was covered with pictures of Joe,” said Barbara. “But when we got home, Joe asked me to get the collection jars out of the store and take his pictures down.

“And then he wanted me to make sure no one had given more money than they could afford.”

Maybe that selfless attitude is why everyone cared, why they did what they did. Who knows? But it’s definitely the reason, when you ask who is Joe Frazier, that all his friends say with love, He’s … hmmm? … he’s just Joe.

[photos] Photography by Gary McKellar, Deseret News