Cover photo for Carmelo Richard "Joe" Iaria's Obituary
Carmelo Richard "Joe" Iaria Profile Photo
1927 Carmelo 2019

Carmelo Richard "Joe" Iaria

August 15, 1927 — July 27, 2019

Carmelo Richard "Joe" Iaria died on Saturday, July 29, 2019, a few weeks short of his ninety-second birthday. Born in South River, New Jersey on August 15, 1927, he was the son of Carmelo and Rose Iaria. After residing in New Jersey for his entire life, he lived for the last four years on Bainbridge Island, Washington. He is survived by his beloved sister, Marie Fricke, of Monroe Township, New Jersey; his son, Richard, of Oakland, California; another son, Michael, of Bainbridge Island; a daughter, Carol Latyschow, of Colts Neck, New Jersey; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He is predeceased by his wife, Vivian, and son, Peter.

Joe and Marie were raised by their Italian-immigrant father and first-generation Italian-American mother in South River during the Great Depression. His father, from a small village in the hills near Reggio, Calabria, left Italy alone at age sixteen penniless, but with a desire to work and a deep respect for all people. "He was the best cook in the world," Joe would recall frequently in his later years. His mother was from a family that had come from the Naples area. She was a great cook, too, and mastered the cuisines of the various countries and cultures that were a rich part of the immigrant fabric of South River. One of Joe's first jobs, done in the early morning before school, was to turn the crank on a manual sausage maker to help supply inventory for the family's small neighborhood grocery store. Throughout his life, Joe loved good food, and was especially partial to sweets. When he lived in New Jersey, his autopilot was always set to take him to Mendoker's Bakery, in Jamesburg, and, after he moved to Washington, to Sluys Bakery, in Poulsbo.

Joe's mother was a very good student and was the valedictorian of her eighth-grade class, but the economic demands of the era overrode her desire for further education. Joe's father was very smart, despite having to leave school in the second grade. It did take him awhile to learn English after he arrived in this country, but only because he was busy first mastering Hungarian to be able to communicate with his co-workers on the floor of the factory where he found his first job.

One might think that, with parents as smart as his, Joe's academic career was an ascendant success from the outset, but Joe liked playing baseball and hanging out with his buddies better than studying. He was the first to admit that, unlike his sister, he was a lackluster student from K through 12. He had an intervention, in the form of World War II, to thank for a change in his ambitions. He enlisted in the Army before the end of the war, but his service admittedly was not a Greatest Generation saga of hardship overcome. Peace came before he finished basic training, and he was part of the European occupation, acting as (true story) the manager of a dormitory for Army nurses billeted in an appropriated Viennese hotel. In an unverified story, he claimed that, while stumbling back to his barracks one night with a buddy after a few too many drinks, he met General Mark Clark, who apparently was out for a late-night walk with several MPs acting as his security detail. He insisted that he gave the general a sharp and proper salute that did not betray a hint of intoxication, but also recalled that the MPs smirked at him.

It was not this close encounter with a military hero or the near occasion of a court martial that upped his academic game, though, but the lasting impression he had of the sergeant who ruled his life: "I swore I'd never work again for anyone like him, so after my discharge I figured I needed to get into college." He took remedial high school-level classes and did well enough to get into Rutgers. A beneficiary of the government's GI Bill, he focused on and excelled at math and business. Nearing graduation, he and a boyhood friend, Walt Harris, believed their future was in a Blatz Beer distributorship, but their business plans hit a wall when banks were not interested in lending to them. Without the funds to spend his way to a life that left his Army sergeant in the rearview mirror, he decided instead to spend the time it would take to attend Rutgers Law School, which by then had started an evening program in Newark. Married with children, he worked during the day, drove to get on a train to commute to Newark, studied on the train, went to class, returned home, and did it all over again the next day.

He became a lawyer, practicing first in Sayreville, next in South River, and finally in East Brunswick, where he and his family moved from South River in 1969. Along the way he helped thousands of clients navigate the bumps and passages of life: he wrote wills, handled house closings, probated estates, helped small businesses and farmers obtain permits, secured approvals from planning boards for builders, and generally offered steady and practical guidance to those who needed it, often in the form of quips, surely formed by his experience as a child of the Depression, such as "Trust everyone, but keep your hand on your wallet" and "Don't fall in love with a piece of real estate; there will always be another just as nice." He always had pro bono time to devote to any house of worship that needed legal advice. He was honored to have been on the board of the Middlesex County Fair Association. He served on the South River Board of Education. He was, for a long, long life, devoted to Central Jersey and its people.

During a period in his later years, he spoke truth to power, appearing at East Brunswick Town Council meetings, laden with facts, to encourage and challenge a few of his elected officials to be better versions of themselves. He had a direct style of citizen advocacy that could have landed him a job with Roger Ailes. As a result, he was advised in good humor by some to take with him not just facts, but also bail money to the meetings. Still, he had enormous respect and admiration for the good people -- both those who were elected to make policy and those who were employed to handle day-to-day operations -- whose hard work made East Brunswick a wonderful place to live and raise a family.

When Joe enlisted he hoped to become a pilot, perhaps inspired by his Uncle Ben, who was a gunner on a bomber in Europe, but his physical disclosed that he was color blind and therefore not qualified to enter flight school. Years later, when he became law partners with Seymour Gelzer, who had been a naval aviator during the war and was then a private pilot, he learned to fly small planes. After he could no longer fly, he still loved to hang around small landing strips, especially those with diners where he could drink coffee and eat strawberry rhubard pie while watching planes take off and land. He might not be able to experience the freedom of flight any longer, but he loved being near it.

Joe loved the Jersey Shore, eventually designing and building a bungalow on Long Beach Island that served as the basecamp for countless crabbing and clamming expeditions. Undoubtedly, his boyhood friend Walt Harris has met him in heaven and the two are walking in a bay's waist-deep water, feeling for clams in the mud with their bare feet, scooping up blue-claw crabs with nets on six-foot poles, tossing their bounty into wicker baskets in inner tubes towed behind them on ropes, and getting ready to cook up a feast as soon as they return to shore.

A few years after he moved to Bainbridge Island, Joe became a resident of the Wyatt House, an assisted living facility, where he found a final community to love and be loved by in return. Within a day, he had staked out a chair in the lobby from which, as the unofficial mayor, he greeted all who entered or passed by. He had found a reasonable replacement for his Central Jersey "rounds", which for many years consisted of drives that took him from his house to visit his friends at Mendoker's Bakery, the Colonial Diner in East Brunswick, Ritchie Vandeursen's shop in North Brunswick, and the many other places where he felt at home. His world had grown smaller, but no less rich. He died in grace, well loved, and loving, until the end.

There will be a celebration of Joe's life at the Wyatt House, at 186 Wyatt Way NW, Bainbridge Island, on August 15 from 1:00 – 2:30 PM. He will be buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, in South Brunswick, New Jersey, after a private graveside service on August 19, 2019.


Arrangements are entrusted to the Cook Family Funeral Home of Bainbridge Island.

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Celebration of Life

Thursday, August 15, 2019

1:00 - 2:30 pm (Pacific time)

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