Where to start when considering the life and contributions of Joseph Novak, the Albany engineer, businessman and philanthropist who died Tuesday morning at the age of 82?
You could start with the inspiring story of how Novak and his wife, Matilda, came to the United States in the first place, fleeing from their native Hungary during the communist revolution of the mid-1950s. They were caught during their first escape attempt and spent a year in a holding camp before being allowed to join her family in California. That couldn't have been easy to endure.
Partially as a result of that experience, Joseph Novak never took his adopted country for granted. In fact, for many years, Novak made it a point before every Fourth of July to drop off a written letter to the editor of the Democrat-Herald. In each letter, he expressed his gratitude for being able to live in the United States.
His pride at being an American, his gratitude at being able to get a fresh start in the land of the free, was a constant theme throughout Novak's life. Shelly Garrett, the executive director of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, put it well: "He made me proud to be an American because he always talked about how much he loved America and how good it was to his family."
Novak embraced Albany in the same unabashed and enthusiastic manner once he arrived in the mid-valley. (Before coming to the area to work for Wah Chang, he worked for NASA in California.)
Or you could start by talking about the lasting legacy of the Novak family's restaurant, an Albany destination since 1984. Since the restaurant first opened its doors, it's been housed in three different locations. Its most recent move, in 2015, into a historic building the family remodeled, helped put an exclamation point on Albany's remarkable downtown resurgence.
The restaurant provided a home base for much of Novak's work to give back to the community he adopted as his own. For decades, the family served more than 400 free Thanksgiving Day meals annually. And it often was impossible to eat at the restaurant without being enthusiastically greeted by Novak himself, who would shake your hand and call you his friend. And you were.
Or you could start with Novak's involvement in the community, which went well beyond the walls of the restaurant.
He served on the Linn-Benton Community College Board of Education for 25 years, a stretch that included three terms as chairman and four terms as vice chairman. He was named LBCC's Distinguished Citizen in 2007, served as a guest speaker at commencement and was an honorary member of the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society.
He also served as the grand marshal of the Albany Veterans Day Parade in 2012 and was chaplain for the American Veterans Association. And, as if he needed any more items on his resume, he served as an ambassador for the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce.
We've noticed over the years that so many community leaders who leave a lasting impression serve not so much out of a sense of obligation, but out of a sense of real joy. It's very possible that no one demonstrates that link between community service and pure joy better than Novak.
That joy percolated through everything Novak did. As his family noted this week on social media sites: "Pop used to say, 'What a wonderful, beautiful, glorious day.'"
That sounds like quintessential Joseph Novak. He probably wouldn't want us to grieve his death, but to celebrate a life well-lived and full of joy. We can do that.
But allow us just a moment to take stock of and pay tribute to his many accomplishments — and to come to terms with this simple fact: He will be sorely missed. And he leaves behind a pair of awfully big shoes to fill. (mm)