Joe Roberts rolls up to the kitchen counter and grabs three glass tumblers stamped 3M.
He gets out the Barrons Vodka, some ice and a bottle of Bloody Mary mix.
It's 4 p.m. on a Tuesday. Traffic outside the window in Room 312 is just flying on West Maple. People with places to go. Things to do.
But for Joe, the only place to be is here, at Marquis Place of Elkhorn, an assisted living residence.
And the only thing to do right now is a daily ritual that Joe and wife Lois share.
The former mayor of Valley wheels to a waist-high fridge and pulls out a Busch NA.
Crack goes the can. Glug-lug-lug goes the nonalcoholic golden liquid into a plastic cup.
Joe hands his wife her beer.
“Pour your own,” he says to me, given my finicky order. Light on the vodka. Heavy on the Mr & Mrs T mix. This is work, after all.
It feels a bit like coming home.
I was a newish reporter and Joe was an old-hat politician when we first met in 1999.
The Western Douglas County Chamber of Commerce was naming Valley Mayor Joe Roberts its citizen of the year.
I was sent to meet this paradox of a man. One who breathes with a respirator and smokes African Queen in his pipe. One whose legs were made useless by polio but who gets around well anyway. One who talks straight, albeit colorfully, and holds elected office.
One who pushed and pressed to get an assisted living facility built in his hometown of 1,800.
He figured he and Lois would need the help someday. They wanted to grow old in Valley and not in, say, that behemoth metropolis, Omaha.
But here he is at 208th and West Maple, in what used to be called Elkhorn.
“As a courtesy to Phil Klein,” Joe says of his buddy, the old Elkhorn mayor, “I came for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, never dreaming I would end up in the damn place.”
Of course, Joe never dreamed he'd be a healthy, 25-year-old Navy vet waterskiing on a Friday and, by that Sunday, in an iron lung fighting for his life when polio struck.
He never dreamed that he'd raise his two boys solo. Nor that a woman named Lois, raising three kids alone, would wind up at a Valley bar one night when the Country Apollos were playing. Joe on bass guitar. The band in white leisure suits.
Theirs became a Brady Bunch family.
Joe's political life began in the late 1970s when he joined the Valley City Council. Appointed mayor in 1993, he was elected three times after that.
His was a public life marked by causes great and small. He was a charter member of the Great Plains Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, a longtime member and past commander of the American Legion Post No. 58 in Valley and a past chairman of the State of Nebraska Veterans Chapter.
He served on the county Board of Adjustments, on a state recycling and litter reduction board, a metro planning strategy board, Junior Crime Stoppers, a county coalition of mayors.
A brag wall in Room 312 charts this service. There's Joe in photographs with Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson before their hair turned gray; there he is with a thinner, even more boyish Lee Terry. There are plaques and certificates. Three admiralties in the Nebraska Navy.
Joe decided against another run for office in 2004. “I kind of hated to give it up,” he said.
But his body was weakening.
Lois was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2010, and Joe realized that he couldn't care for her alone.
They reluctantly sold their house. And reluctantly moved from Valley, where Joe spent nearly all his life. They had hoped to make Valley's Orchard Gardens, an assisted living facility that opened the year Joe retired, their new home.
But Elkhorn's place could better accommodate him.
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They moved into a one-bedroom unit. Joe keeps an office in the corner of the living room. As a ham radio operator, he can “visit” Europe.
He still drives a hand-operated white van and oversees Lois' care for her recently diagnosed Parkinson's disease. He and Lois still play boisterous monthly games of pitch with her siblings. They are great-grandparents.
Joe hasn't quite left public office. He is president of the Marquis Place residents association.
On Saturday, he turned 78.
The ex-mayor's health is steady. His spirits are good enough.
And this stage of life offers new challenges — but none harder than 50 years ago, when he stopped walking.
“I was too damn dumb to see the cards stacked against me. I loved life. I enjoyed life,” Joe says of his paralysis. “My good Lord put me in a wheelchair for a purpose. Just slowed me down to everybody else's pace.”
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