ever, e’en ’til death


We are not supposed to be a generation that dies very young, and in fact, for some of us, we scarcely believe we’re going to die at all. So caught up in a torrent of ageless consumerism and the fetish of our own ironic past, the mere concept of mortality eludes even the most nihilistic of us.

However, it’s no joke that my graduating class has yet to hit forty years old, and already my fraternity – Chi Psi at North Carolina – has lost four brothers from my tenure. I know two things about mentioning the word “fraternity”: it creates one instant groan, and then a second when you say yours was different. Well, mine was. It was the only place where intellectuals, iconoclasts, weirdos and out-of-staters could gather and still have a fighting chance at smooching the gorgeous Chi Omega from Kannapolis. It was the only fraternity Tessa would come near, if that tells you anything.


Jon Baker and me, Trader Vic’s 1990

The first of our group to go was Jon Baker, my “big brother” and one of the quickest minds to set foot in North Carolina. His command of trivia would have given that Mormon guy fits on “Jeopardy,” but he could also command crowds: he was our president, and lorded over some of the greatest parties of the late 1980s. One night he grabbed my guitar (which was missing two strings) and proceeded to play every Steely Dan song in the catalogue, including a few other crazy AM hits along the way. When he was done, it was 3am and there were about twenty of us around him. The kicker? He had never played guitar before. He died at thirty years old.

The next to go was Chuck Pierce, the apotheosis of a scholar/athlete from Tennessee. Insane amounts of pressure from his past, along with his high-octane scholarship, made him freak out while at the Lodge, and before long he stopped going to class. It didn’t make him any less funny, any less charming, and any less wonderful. After graduation, he lived with the Gribster and me in the Purple House and his unique humor kept us afloat. The day I moved to California, I got the news: he was gone at twenty-eight.

I didn’t know Chris Myers as well; he was one of the quietest folks in our brotherhood. The rumor was he was a genius, and if you happened to be lucky enough to overhear a snippet of his dialogue, all was confirmed. He was the kind of guy I look back upon and wish I’d had the foresight to take him out with us, take him drinking, dancing, anything. Not that he would have gone, but at least he would have been asked. Plagued by depression, he took his own life early last year.

This morning, we got the news that Joe Quinn, one of my favorite people ever and a frequent commenter on this blog, died of an aggressive lung cancer that felled him in two months. He leaves behind his wife and two kids. As Jody K says, he was the consummate southern gentleman, and as everyone knew, after three drinks he’d be saying things you’d remember fifteen years later.

He wasn’t just on my list of greats, he was everybody’s All-American. If you were at a party and Joe was there, everything would be cool. If it was 2am and he was up watching TV, you’d watch it with him until the sun rose. His peculiar accent, fermented in the wild mountain air of McDowell County, became much-imitated among us out-of-staters, and we can all repeat our favorite phrases.

He was a bourbon drinker, but I doubt he’ll mind that I will raise a glass of single-malt scotch in his honor, for him and my other brethren who are now guardian spirits hovering o’er.

0 thoughts on “ever, e’en ’til death

  1. eric g.

    A fitting tribute to a great man. I am still awake at this late hour because I can’t come to grips with losing another of us so tragically and so young. Joe was a steady, calming presence, and the fact that he is gone makes the world seem a colder place. I was struck a few months back by Joe’s insistence in comments on my blog that I identify a place I called home. For Joe, a man with a strong sense of where he came from and where he belonged, my nomadic ways made him concerned for that I had become rootless and adrift. The fact that he asked a second time, that he cared enough not to accept the deflective first answer of someone he hadn’t seen in seven or eight years, explains a lot about Joe and a lot about why North Carolina was my ultimate answer to his question. I will never forget Joe’s facial expressions and his way of smiling with slightly pursed lips that conveyed a slightly bemused sense of world-weariness, as if he had seen it all or knew that if he hadn’t already, he eventually would.
    You will be missed, Joe. You were one of the truly individual people I will ever meet, and I truly loved you as a brother.

  2. Anne

    My sympathies, Ian.
    Four good friends of mine have died over the past 8 years; three of them were fellow writers… amazing minds, amazing wits, amazing thoughtful people. It never gets easier to process these terrible losses.

  3. sb

    I’m sorry for your loss.
    not to be macabre, but how did Jon die? I worked with him at two different jobs in the triangle. we used to play cards.

  4. chip

    This sucks. I had no idea Joe was even sick. I hadn’t seen him in several years.
    Joe Quinn said three things that were so funny that they have stuck with me for 20 years.
    Here they are, I hope they make sense in print.
    One time Joe told me that he grew up on a farm in McDowell County. I asked him what they grew on the farm and without missing a beat Joe replied “Tax deductions.”
    Another time we were discussing Joe’s best friend Ted, who came to UNC on a Morehead Scholarship. I asked Joe if he was a Morehead also, and he replied that he came to Carolina on a “Joseph N. Quinn, Sr. scholarship”. I told him I had never heard of that one and he said “It means my Dad pays for everything”.
    Finally I remember Joe looking at me one time and saying “Chapman, you think Ted and I are rednecks. Back in Marion, we’re the elite.”
    Joe Quinn, in Marion, Chapel Hill, Wilson, or anyplace on God’s green earth, you were the elite.

  5. Lindsay

    My friends, we are the East, we are the West, we are… PINK TOR.. PE… DO.
    Rest in peace, Joe.
    Since the mid-90’s there has sometimes been a little Joe Quinn voice in my head that yes “Now, Lindsay…” in that certain tone when I do something that would rightly cause skepticism in someone blessed with horse sense.
    I never knew that was the same “quinn” who commented here. Turns out, that instead of just thinking about him fairly often lo these many years, I was also in touch with him, after a fashion. Makes me a little less sad.

  6. eric g.

    Chip, those were great quotations. I shed a tear just envisioning Joe saying them. I remember that when Joe particularly objected to something someone said, he would drawl “Now there you’re wrong…”
    SB, Jon Baker came home one night from his job teaching at Sylvan Learning Center in Durham, sat down in his chair to watch SportsCenter, and died of a brain aneurysm. Tragic and senseless.
    Andy, I believe Joe actually was born in Linville Falls. I’m not sure if he later moved to Marion proper or if he met Ted at McDowell County High School. I always have associated him with Marion, so he may have actually called it home.

  7. Andy

    Thanks, eric. Joe may have been a few years ahead of me in high school so that’s probably why I didn’t know him. And those of us from McDowell County know that once you leave town, burgs like Nebo, Glenwood, PG, Old Fort, etc don’t mean much and we revert to saying we’re from Marion collectively.

  8. emma

    My sympathies to Joe’s family and friends. Ian’s words are a beautiful tribute.
    I have never met Joe, but from what I have read here and in Eric’s blog, I realize that our paths have probably crossed several times over the last two decades. He lived an hour away and was in the same profession from me only 45 minutes away from where I worked. Looking back through these archives, Joe thought we had crossed paths too. In July, he commented to me on this site, “How have we never met, or have we? Would you like to drink together sometime?” Damn, if I had only known he lived an hour away. I probably flatter myself by saying I would have gotten along well with all the Quinns.
    It is a good week to remember to be thankful for the good health that we have and to remember to give to those who are not so fortunate.

  9. xuxE

    god i should have taken my head out of my ass and said wussup to him, but i didn’t have any real sense of urgency about catching up and was afraid of getting into touchy subjects. and now i’m just like, FUCK!!!!
    he was so fucking hysterical. he would have me absolutely crying on countless occasions.
    i know he had hella issues at that time but fuck, we all did, we were just fucking kids.
    RIP Joe Quinn.

  10. Ian

    Joe posted here under a few different names, but was mostly “joe q”. “Quinn” is actually the wonderful Quinn Cummings, who can be found here:
    Chip, thanks so much for Joe’s quips. Last night when I wrote this, I was hoping you would write some of them, because I’ve forgotten a lot of those little moments.
    Last night I held a dram of Bruichladdich XVII to the night sky, a drink made in 1988, the year I was lucky enough to meet him.

  11. Reader

    A wonderful tribute – all of these guys were lucky to have a friend like you to describe them so well even for those of us who never met them.

  12. JustinMcG

    This news hits me hard.
    I last saw Joe three years ago at the 75th anniversary thing at the Lodge. I hadn’t seen him in a many years before that, so I guess I can take some small solace in the fact that i was able to reconnect, if only for a short time.
    After I saw him that time, he sent me an email that said in part: “I fondly remember the night you and Chuck Pierce came with Ted to tell me I was a pledge. I then remember going with you guys to tell Brad Beebe.”
    Joe went on to explain how haunted he was by Chuck’s death, and he wondered whether there was anything anyone could have done.
    Now they’re both gone.
    Joe was truly a good person.
    Just … fuck.

  13. c

    Condolences on the loss. Too many great folks die inexplicably young. The Chi Psi I’ve known, know and know of best include you, Ian, folks you know and mention here on the blog (vicariously), and Tom Williams and Ben McIver, both more memorable to me than most from pre-college, b/c they came FROM North Carolina like me, and sure sounds like your pal Joe.

  14. Neva

    I just read his obituary in the N and O. I cried for his wife, daughter and son. Such a shame for them to lose someone so quickly and so early. You and the commenters here made me feel like I knew him. Thanks for that.

  15. Jody K

    Joe rushed me hard at the Lodge. He made it perfectly clear that he wanted a larger contingent of indigenous, particularly mountain, Carolinians to offset the out-of-staters. I probably disappointed him to this end, but it did not keep him from delivering my bid and letting me be his roommate for a semester. We drank a lot of bourbon and ginger ale and I picked up his (and Teddy Mac’s, of course) mannerisms of speech, many of which I use to this day. These were so unique that I wish they were recorded somewhere (y’all know what I mean). This was also during a run for student body president- Joe and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, they called it, so I didn’t see him enough.
    The last time I saw him was during the same event Justin mentioned. There are times when you are want to tell someone they are one of the most unique, intelligent and outstanding singular personalities that you know. I almost introduced him to my wife that way, but it would have been out of place and complicated to explain.
    I should have anyway, because he was.

  16. Annie

    Oh god– c, I hope you don’t mean the Tom Williams I knew from NC Governor’s School–math genius, Morehead, and great guy. I can’t believe these early-death stories, even though I tend to feel I have a constant awareness of such things because of my own father’s untimely death at 50.
    This is terribly sad, Ian, for you and for everyone who knew Joe Q. Thank you for giving him, and the other Chi Psis you mentioned, such eloquent tributes, as only you can. Those of us who did not know them now feel that we did, a little, and it is your gift.


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