The brightest light of them all

Fifteen years ago, Joe Saba interviewed me when I was a candidate for editor of the Daily Journal.

At the time, he was in charge of the press and production of the newspaper and part of a committee that quizzed me on everything from how to get great stories to what we were doing about the brave new world of the Internet.

But of all the questions I was asked, it was Joe’s that stood out the most.

“How do you think you will handle telling men what to do and then getting them to do it?” he said. “And what about sports?”

After my brain registered that he really did ask me that, I dished it right back.

Joe, I said, I know more about sports than most guys. And, I added, I didn’t know you had to have a (part of the anatomy unique to a male) to be the editor of a newspaper.

Then I laughed. So did Joe.

Everyone else on that committee was mortified that Joe would ask the question.

The query, though, was pure Joe Saba — blunt, straightforward, not so politically correct and very likely what everyone else in the room wanted to ask but couldn’t or wouldn’t.

After that, Joe and I became fast friends.

But you know that, right? Joe was everyone’s friend. Meet Joe Saba, and you couldn’t help but be smitten.

Joe was completely drenched in life, running at warp speed to and through every opportunity put in front of him. How many times did we find ourselves shaking our heads in sheer wonderment at his escapades and brutal honesty, saying, “Only Joe.”

That gleam (and sometimes devil) in his eyes. That swagger and spirit. That playful enthusiasm. That delight he took in his own mastery and nurturing of the things he loved — the newspaper business, biking, running and swimming, growing grapes, photojournalism, friends and, most of all, his family.

And yes, there was that endearing and legendary gift of gab.

Joe was a talker. At first, you might think: Who is this nosy guy with his prickly questions?

But his verbal ways were born of his genuine curiosity about people and what they did. He’d interrogate you about your job, your family, your kids, your weekend, your hobbies because he really and truly wanted to know. You’d be both exhausted and exhilarated after a Joe encounter. He wouldn’t let you go until he had everything figured out.

Then the fun would begin. He’d relish in sharing his own exploits, how he’d charmingly wormed his way in front of the most interesting people and into the damnedest of situations.

There was the time he was out on a photo assignment at one of the county’s lakes, and his Ray-Bans fell in the water. Joe told the lake patrol lady that she either had to turn her head or drive her boat away because he was stripping to his skivvies and going in after them. And he did.

Another time he got lost in the countryside trying to find Bedford-North Lawrence when Center Grove was playing a postseason football game. He saw a car backing out of a driveway, pulled up and blocked the car, and jumped out and said, “I’m a newspaper photographer on deadline. I’m shooting a football game. Where’s the high school?” The woman he stopped had to be scared out of her wits, but he was so real in that unique Joe way. She cheerfully gave him directions, and like always, he didn’t miss the kickoff.

Then there was the time Joe was shooting the Indianapolis 500. Somehow and not surprisingly, he wound up where he should not have been — on a lookout tower with Roger Penske. Joe, of course, struck up a conversation with Penske and ended up giving him a bottle of water. This was during the race.

Only Joe.

He started working at the Daily Journal and Home News Enterprises after graduating from Whiteland Community High School in 1975 and never worked anywhere else.

He was the fixer, the smartest problem solver, the hardest worker, the guy who would move heaven and earth to get the job done the right way and the best press whisperer ever. He could tear newspaper presses apart, put them back together bit by bit and keep them running with glue and rubber bands.

When we needed to bust a deadline to get the best possible story to our readers, Joe would do it. When, at the last minute, we needed an extra four pages to cover a significant community event, Joe would make it happen. When big and not-so-big stories hit, Joe would be in my office asking about the details or telling me whom we could talk to for the scoop. Joe knew everyone.

Over the years, he took on big and important leadership roles in the Home News production departments, but his heart was always and forever smack dab in the middle of the newsroom.

About eight years ago, he became fully immersed in the news-gathering side of the paper when he started doing the job he loved the most — taking photographs.

For all his special verbal talents, he understood the everlasting power of a single still image. His photographs were stunning.

Every assignment was special to him, a chance to meet more interesting people and share their stories — this time with thousands of readers. I can’t count the number of security people whom Joe smooth-talked into letting him sneak into places where no one else was allowed.

On the morning when the worst flood hit Johnson County, Joe was waist deep in the muddy waters taking photographs. Later in the day, reporters and editors ended up at his home, uploading photos and stories to our website because flood waters stopped us from getting to Franklin.

I was always taken aback when Joe, over and over again, sincerely thanked us for letting him take photos for the paper. Are you kidding? Joe’s work made our paper better every day.

Outside the office, Joe and I bonded over our sometimes laughable attempts to be athletes. We would swap stories about how many miles we’d run or biked on the weekend. Joe and his wife, Joannie, and my husband, Eric, and I would trudge to Indianapolis to run in some 5K or 10K race. We’d meet in Hope for a 50-mile bike ride.

I won’t forget pulling into tiny Harrodsburg, Indiana, in the dark of the morning for The Popcorn Bike Ride. Joannie and Joe, already in the community center ready to conquer the hills, were all decked out in their fancy bike garb.

After he got sick we’d swap cancer and chemo stories. Bald is beautiful, I’d tell him, because I’d been there, done that.

But it was our daily, early-morning gabfests over a dozen years that I treasure most. The loud and lively chats were the stuff of work and everyday life — why a story was late, how to get photos to print better, what our families were up to and if the Colts and Packers were any good.

Those were the times when I got a glimpse of what quieted Joe — his family. He was devoted to Joannie and their kids, Matt and Alexis. The only time I saw him at a loss for words was when he was moved to tears talking about his love for them and his big-as-the-sky pride in their accomplishments.

You know, for all the famous and not-so-famous people that stumbled into his life, Joe was the brightest light of them all.

I can hear him now giving a dissertation on the best pH level for picking grapes, the role of a blanket in the offset printing process and how he mischievously snuck into a guarded venue at the Indianapolis Super Bowl.

Only Joe.

His voice will never go silent. We will hear him in our hearts forever. Rest well, my friend.

Note: Joe Saba died Wednesday. Scarlett Syse is Daily Journal group editor.