CEDAR RAPIDS — After Joe McNabb’s wife, Berneice, died in 2006, he began collecting angels.
After Joe died Aug. 26, his children saw those angels — hundreds of them — hanging from the ceiling, sitting around the house, gathered among the yard’s flowers and evergreen bushes, even stored in boxes.
And, not sure what to do with such a large collection, they slipped out under cover of darkness to scatter angel love around the Regent Street NE neighborhood.
“He would have laughed,” says daughter Barb Gosnell, 75, of Mountain Home, Ark. “He would have been out in the middle of it all, but he wouldn’t have been quiet.”
“He would have loved it,” adds son Jerry Pease, 71, of Phoenix, Ore.
The two surviving children of Joe and Berneice McNabb, who were married nearly 58 years, came to Cedar Rapids for Joe’s funeral and to close the estate. They loved Joe, their mother’s second husband, as their father. They do not know why he collected angels after Berneice’s death, except that he enjoyed collecting things and he loved his wife.
Berneice had Alzheimer’s. Whenever she’d get upset, he would take her for a ride in the car. When she fixed Jell-O three times a day or soft-boiled eggs for dinner every night because she could do that for Joe, he simply smiled and ate what she set before him.
“He took such good care of her,” Barbara says, her eyes moist with memories. “He was fabulous. She never went to a nursing home.”
The story of Berneice and Joe began after World War II, after he had served his country in the Navy. They met one evening at Danceland, the iconic ballroom of the day in the heart of Cedar Rapids. Apparently, Berneice captured Joe’s heart, because not only was she five years older, but she had four young children by a man who had left her. So Joe told her he was 29, too, not 24, and continued to see her.
“She would not have gone out with him later if she’d known that,” Barb says.
On June 19, 1948, because Illinois had no waiting period for a marriage license, they slipped across the state line to Milan, Ill., to exchange vows. Their honeymoon lasted the rest of her life.
Together, Berneice and Joe had a son, Danny Joe. He joined Barb, Dick, Jerry and Joan. Joe would work for the railroad as his father had done, the Milwaukee Road and Illinois Central as a union member for 65 years. Their children would grow up and leave the nest. Tragically, Danny Joe would die in a motorcycle accident in 1999 and cancer would take Dick and Joan, both last year.
Berneice and Joe would have their home on Regent Street NE built in 1955 on a lot near Noelridge Park they picked out together. When the foundation went up for a three-bedroom house instead of the four-bedroom one, they shrugged it off. This was where they wanted to live.
When not at home, the McNabbs would often go camping where their noses led. And whenever they’d leave a campground, Joe would crank up the stereo for the camper’s outdoor speaker and play Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” to the delight of those they left behind.
Maybe, just maybe, that’s why he lovingly called his wife, “Willie.”
Joe certainly missed her when she died. He obviously had a hand in writing her obituary, which included the line, “Every person who ever met her will fondly remember her bright smile and sparkling eyes and surely has come to realize that angels don’t all have wings.”
Joe began collecting angels. He had collected tools and 8-track tapes and swans, and angels just seemed appropriate now that his wife was gone. He bought them at garage sales and auctions and discount stores. Many were gifts.
“If he saw an angel,” Jerry says, “he wanted to own it.”
Living by himself, Joe continued his friendly ways up and down the street. He became known as “the mayor of Noelridge.”
On the afternoon of Joe’s funeral, Sept. 1, more than 100 people came to the house for lunch and to pay their last respects. Upon the family’s insistence, each left with an angel hand-picked from Joe’s collection.
As the family reminisced into the night — remembering the man Jerry called “Papa Joe,” the rugged, hardworking railroad man who embraced angels as a gift from heaven — Joe’s grandson Gary Gosnell, who’d come from South Dakota, suggested they move a large angel from a few blocks away to the front yard for all to see. As the conversation continued, as everyone felt the aura from the angels that surrounded them, an idea popped into several minds at once.
Soon, seven men, each with a box of angels, descended upon the neighborhood. They’d leave a ceramic angel on a doorstep, a metal one near a downspout, a hanging one on a tree branch. They’d giggle quietly, trying not to break the midnight silence with the joyful laugh they all felt inside.
When those angels were gone, they returned to Joe’s house to gather up more, to leave them at the curbs and under the bushes and in the gardens of his friends.
His family knew they didn’t need them any more, because Joe was with the angel of his dreams.