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Joe Rich winding down daily involvement with DPAO


The eagle-eyed champion of underdogs noticed a crow alight on his front lawn.

“I give them food,” Joseph L. Rich said. “They fight it out with the crows that come into town. They’re not going to lose their food source. In the middle of winter, I see them out there — freezing.”

Sitting at his dining room table at his LeRay home on the banks of the Black River, he motioned to the backyard.

“I feed a stray cat here,” he said. “I love animals.”

It becomes apparent that Mr. Rich’s big heart extends to man and beast.

He has made a career of using compassion to get results. The founder of the Disabled Persons Action Organization retired as executive director and CEO of the agency in 2008. But he has still been involved in its operation, advising in the completion of a respite home and helping to manage the yearly DPAO concert series.

But now, Mr. Rich says it’s time to wind down his daily volunteer involvement with the DPAO, which he founded in 1976 — originally as the Foundation for the Handicapped — two years after the first benefit concert was held to raise money for Ronald P. Donato, who was paralyzed after being shot accidentally while hunting. Money was raised to put an addition on his home, and after that north country families called in to WWNY-TV, where Mr. Rich was a news anchor, asking what could be done for their children with developmental disabilities.

But letting go of the agency with 140 full- and part-time employees will be hard.

“When you start an agency and you are its father, and you did it for the right reasons, it’s like saying to them, ‘I got what I wanted out of it. Goodbye.’”

But it’s often a spirited “hello” heard in his Riverbend Drive East home when Mr. Rich answers a DPAO-related phone call, which happened during this interview.

“As long as I have the health and mental capacity to be able to be of assistance, I’m always going to be open to ways where I can help people,” said Mr. Rich, who had heart surgery in 1988.

Music has been a big part of his mission of helping people. He estimates the DPAO has brought in at least 200 musical acts, ranging from Loretta Lynn to Meat Loaf. This year’s series brought in $59,383 total profit.

“I thought it would create an excitement in Watertown and it would give me a chance to tell people what we were trying to do at DPAO — to assist people with special needs,” Mr. Rich said.

DPAO’s musical acts didn’t start out as a series.

“It gradually grew into one after I had time to manage it,” Mr. Rich said. “People are wondering to this very day: How in the world can Watertown, New York, bring in the quality of entertainment on par with what they bring in at the State Fair and at the Turning Stone Casino?”

Success is not limited to his work at DPAO. His home, from living room walls to an overflow storage tub in the basement, is peppered with plaques, certificates and awards ranging from Fort Drum, Rotary International, the Elks Club and the International Media Club.

Mr. Rich’s drive to succeed, and his tireless work ethic, developed while he was growing up on Coffeen Street and later on South Hamilton Street in Watertown. Mr. Rich’s father, Leonard Rich, a 1925 graduate of Columbia University School of Pharmacy, owned Rich’s Drug Store on Court Street until his eyesight went bad.

“As a result, he couldn’t keep his business going anymore,” Mr. Rich said.

His father was forced to take odd jobs.

“I can still see him, coming home late at night, from digging ditches for the city of Watertown’s water department,” Mr. Rich said. “He just wanted to show us kids what hard work was.”

He credits his mother, Virginia, with “saving the family.”

“After her husband lost everything, we didn’t have much to live on,” Mr. Rich said. “It wasn’t unusual for me to go down and get surplus food from the county and stuff like that.”

The 1959 graduate of Watertown High School, where he’s a Wall of Achievement honoree, became eager to succeed. He went to college at the Brown Institute of Broadcasting Electronics, Minneapolis, where he had family. He then joined the Army. For nearly three years, he was public information officer at Schweinfurt, Germany, and was discharged in 1963. He later graduated from the New York School of Broadcasting and Announcing in Rochester.

But those earlier days of finding food for his family at his mom’s request taught him a lesson:

“It sort of set my appreciation for people who don’t have anything.”

He then told a story about another person who had nothing, involving another agency he founded, which also brings in local musical acts as fundraisers. The 1 World Foundation is a nonprofit charitable corporation comprising volunteers from New York and Ontario, Canada, who share a dedication to improving the lives of people with developmental disabilities. The group’s mission for about the past dozen years has been to aid the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British territory in the Caribbean.

About 15 years ago, Mr. Rich met a blind boy on one of the islands.

“But when I walked into this school that was in very poor condition, he was getting around like crazy.”

Mr. Rich saw lots of potential in the boy, Stephen Stubbs. “Over the years, I was trying to get him into a school for the blind.”

He finally persuaded officials from the W. Ross Macdonald School for the blind in Brantford, Ontario, to meet him and the boy at Turks and Caicos. They told Mr. Rich the boy didn’t have the social skills to enter their school.

“But I said, ‘He’s smart! Just please take him.’ I begged them. And they took him.”

Mr. Rich said the boy became one of the most popular students at the school. Mr. Rich and his wife of 47 years, Carolyne, attended his graduation. Mr. Stubbs, 25, now back on the islands, has become schooled in radio broadcasting and often calls Mr. and Mrs. Rich, who regularly send care packages.

“The problem is, he cannot find a job,” Mr. Rich said. “He has no way of getting to the place where the radio station is to work.”

Mr. Rich showed frustration at such realization.

“He told me when I was down there, ‘Boy, Mr. Rich! You never did forget me did you? You helped me!’”

“I walked into a corner,” Mr. Rich said, “I think I was crying.”

He paused briefly, with obvious heavy heart, slightly shaking his head.

“It’s awful what I do,” he said. “Because you don’t think of the ones you help. You think of the ones you haven’t been able to help.”

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