We salute the foul-mouthed Navy vet remembered as 'the most inappropriate guy with the biggest heart'

Mandatory Fun
Joe Heller (Legacy.com)

Per his final demands, Joe Heller was laid in his casket Thursday in a T-shirt featuring the Disney dwarf Grumpy and the middle finger of his right hand extended. He also told his daughters to make sure and place a remote control fart machine in the coffin with him.

"My father always wanted the last laugh," daughter Monique Heller said.

The Essex volunteer firefighter and self-described local "dawg kecher" died on Sept. 8 at age 82, and the off-color obituary written by his youngest daughter has become a nationwide sensation — a lead item on cable news sites, a top story on The Courant's website and a post shared far and wide on social media.

Laced with bawdy humor, the irreverent but loving obit captured Heller's highly inappropriate nature and his golden heart, friends who filled the fire station for a celebration of his life on Thursday evening said.

With a 1941 Mack firetruck as a backdrop, a long line of visitors walked by Heller's open casket, sharing hugs, stories and laughs with Monique Heller and other family members. The already infamous obit included stories of Heller's love for dogs and how, as the local animal control officer, he befriended a "repeat offender" that he named "A**hole."

Monique Heller also included stories of growing up with her unusual dad, how he scrutinized boyfriends of Heller's three daughters and their vehicles, and if they passed muster, "they were invited into the house, where shotguns, harpoons and sheep 'nutters' were left clearly on display."

"I was writing it for his local cronies," Monique Heller said. "Who would guess it would be trending on Twitter — and he doesn't even know what Twitter is. I have people from Australia calling me. It's insane."

Then she added, "It's so touching, and it's just what I needed."

Used to mostly dry chronologies of a person's birth, schooling, careers, military service and survivors, obituary readers said they were charmed by the blunt and irreverent account of a life well lived.

"Not all great Americans are famous," Matt Hunter (@MattMHunter) tweeted.

"Best. Obit. Evah." Sean Bannion (@SeanBannion) weighed in.

Hanging Hills Brewery in Hartford (@HHillsBeer) tweeted, "Thinking about naming a beer Joe Heller because he was a CT treasure." Monique Heller said she spoke with a brewery representative, and the name of the new beer may be "Grumpy Joe."

"I didn't know Joe Heller," Chris Healy, chief lobbyist for the Catholic Church in Connecticut and former leader of the state Republican Party, wrote on Facebook, "but this is one of greatest tributes I've ever read. I hope someone writes an obit like this when I head out."

"May he rest in peace and everyone in heaven better watch out," Meryl Herwood Freundlich posted on Facebook. "I don't think his new location will prevent even greater practical jokes. Amen."

At Thursday's memorial, people paying their respects talked about Heller's generosity and heart. A partner in a local home heating oil business, he also was the delivery man and, after filling their tanks, he never refused an elderly resident's request to hang drapes or make a minor repair. At fire and medical calls, Heller was the first one to comfort children or care for displaced animals, fellow firefighters said. If furniture was disrupted while medics moved an injured or sick person from a house, Heller would return and set things straight. Fellow firefighters said he always took time to teach them and was a mentor to many.

Tom MacWhinney, 60, who met Heller when he was a teenager and junior firefighter, said Heller would visit MacWhinney's dogs in a backyard kennel just to pet them and give them one or two of the biscuits he always carried in his pockets.

Heller was the fire department's engineer and could fix anything, fellow firefighters said. His jacket, on display Thursday, bore the name, "Hurstmeister," a recognition of his expertise with Hurst hydraulic tools, also called the "jaws of life."

He was a Connecticut River fisherman, local constable, snowplow operator, husband, father, grandfather and U.S. Navy veteran.

But it was Heller's bawdy character and his penchant for pranks that left the most vivid memories. His business partner in the home heating oil business, Shirley Bombaci, said, "I had to put up with him more than his wife."

Heller was a talented wood carver. Some of his duck decoys and a walking stick were on display Thursday. But Bombaci remembered one present he gave her in particular — a handmade sex toy . For her birthday? No, Christmas, she said.

A neighbor who did not want to give her name said Heller once placed a rental ad for her husband's tool shed in a local newspaper, touting it as a charming country cottage with a nice yard.

In the obituary, Monique Heller encouraged people to wear inappropriate T-shirts to the wake Thursday. MacWhinney's said, "Centerbrook Pornographic Studios," a nonexistent business that Joe Heller invented just to get a reaction, named for a section of his beloved town, where he knew every road and driveway entrance.

"The most inappropriate guy with the biggest heart in the world," Essex firefighter Ron Senn said.

Ferried to Centerbrook Cemetery on the old Mack pumper, Heller was buried Friday with full military honors.


©2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

A UH-60 Black Hawk departs from The Rock while conducting Medevac 101 training with members of the 386th Expeditionary Medical Group, Feb. 16, 2019. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys)

A Minnesota Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter with three Guardsmen aboard crashed south of St. Cloud on Thursday, said National Guard spokeswoman Army Master Sgt. Blair Heusdens.

At this time, the National Guard is not releasing any information about the status of the three people aboard the helicopter, Heusdens told Task & Purpose on Thursday.

Read More Show Less

The Pentagon's latest attempt to twist itself in knots to deny that it is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East has a big caveat.

Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said there are no plans to send that many troops to the region "at this time."

Farah's statement does not rule out the possibility that the Defense Department could initially announce a smaller deployment to the region and subsequently announce that more troops are headed downrange.

Read More Show Less

The Navy could send a second aircraft carrier to the Middle East if President Donald Trump orders a surge of forces to the region, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said on Thursday.

Gordon Lubold and Nancy Youssef of the Wall Street Journal first reported the United States is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East to deter Iran from attacking U.S. forces and regional allies. The surge forces could include several ships.

Read More Show Less

I didn't think a movie about World War I would, or even could, remind me of Afghanistan.

Somehow 1917 did, and that's probably the highest praise I can give Sam Mendes' newest war drama: It took a century-old conflict and made it relatable.

Read More Show Less

An internal investigation spurred by a nude photo scandal shows just how deep sexism runs in the Marine Corps

"I will still have to work harder to get the perception away from peers and seniors that women can't do the job."

(U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Some years ago, a 20-year-old female Marine, a military police officer, was working at a guard shack screening service members and civilians before they entered the base. As a lance corporal, she was new to the job and the duty station, her first in the Marine Corps.

At some point during her shift, a male sergeant on duty drove up. Get in the car, he said, the platoon sergeant needs to see you. She opened the door and got in, believing she was headed to see the enlisted supervisor of her platoon.

Instead, the sergeant drove her to a dark, wooded area on base. It was deserted, no other Marines were around. "Hey, I want a blowjob," the sergeant told her.

"What am I supposed, what do you do as a lance corporal?" she would later recall. "I'm 20 years old ... I'm new at this. You're the only leadership I've ever known, and this is what happens."

She looked at him, then got out of the car and walked away. The sergeant drove up next to her and tried to play it off as a prank. "I'm just fucking with you," he said. "It's not a big deal."

It was one story among hundreds of others shared by Marines for a study initiated in July 2017 by the Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL). Finalized in March 2018, the center's report was quietly published to its website in September 2019 with little fanfare.

The culture of the Marine Corps is ripe for analysis. A 2015 Rand Corporation study found that women felt far more isolated among men in the Corps, while the Pentagon's Office of People Analytics noted in 2018 that female Marines rated hostility toward them as "significantly higher" than their male counterparts.

But the center's report, Marines' Perspectives on Various Aspects of Marine Corps Organizational Culture, offers a proverbial wakeup call to leaders, particularly when paired alongside previous studies, since it was commissioned by the Marine Corps itself in the wake of a nude photo sharing scandal that rocked the service in 2017.

The scandal, researchers found, was merely a symptom of a much larger problem.

Read More Show Less