Counselor Who Treated Kids with Laughter and Love Falls to Coronavirus

“We were like peanut butter and jelly, we were like left and right, like a pair of eyes that blink at the same time.” 
Eric Joseph, youth counselor

Eric Joseph, pictured at home before an event last year, was always a snappy dresser. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Joseph.

Eric Joseph always made sure the kids at Merrick House started their day off right. It didn’t matter that by the time they woke, he was finishing a 10-hour overnight shift at the Long Island home for children with mental health and behavioral challenges. The counselor known as “Mr. E” always found a way to coax the kids out of bed and guide them through their morning routine.

And then there was his irrepressible sense of humor.

“He’d tell these jokes nobody really understood, but we would laugh and the kids would all laugh,” said Renee Duffy, who worked with Joseph for 14 of his 16 years at the home, run by New York nonprofit MercyFirst. “It would help flip the switch. They’d come out of their anger and crisis and open up to Eric.”

Joseph, 68, died at Huntington Hospital on April 2, after testing positive for coronavirus less than two weeks before, according to his wife.

With his many talents and fun-loving personality, Joseph was popular with young people at the home, mainly boys between the ages of 8 and 14. Many of the residents, who Duffy said often arrive straight from a children’s psychiatric ward, have experienced significant trauma and display oppositional behaviors. 

Through countless games of ping-pong, tennis, handball and basketball, Joseph bonded with the vulnerable children in his agency’s care. He was always coming up with new songs that he would get the kids to join him in singing, Duffy said, finding inspiration in everyday tasks like brushing their teeth. For a lifelong musician — he was the original guitarist for the international funk group Heatwave, sporting bellbottoms and an Afro — music was always a natural way for him to connect with others.

family photos

(From left) Eric Joseph with sons Cyrus, Rodney, and Anthony and grandsons Anthony Jr. and Lenard. Photo courtesy of Damian Douglas.

Music was Joseph’s favorite thing to share with his three sons, Anthony, 41, Rodney, 33, and Cyrus, 30, born when Joseph lived in Switzerland. When the time came to choose his name as a producer, he joined their initials with his own to form the name JEBRACY. Recalling his father’s enduring love for Bob Marley, Rodney remembers that Joseph played “I Shot the Sheriff” so often that he grew up thinking his father had written the song.

Joseph was also beloved by many nieces and nephews around the world. Angela Simmonds, 46, always looked forward to spending her summer holiday with her uncle’s family in Switzerland. Raised by Joseph’s mother after she lost her own at a young age, she remembers her few nice toys were the gifts Joseph brought on his visits to London, stepping in as her own special “Father Christmas.” He also taught her ambition, she said, and was “100 percent the reason” she went to university and earned a master’s degree. At her wedding, it was her uncle who took her arm and walked her down the aisle.

Joseph was also an important father figure for Damian Douglas, 38, who said his uncle treated him “like a son” whenever he joined in with his cousins. Always happy to share his love of music, Joseph used to lay down beats and encourage his nephew to rap over them. 

band picture

Eric “Funkyman” Joseph, far left, was the original guitarist for the funk band HeatWave. Photo courtesy of Damian Douglas.

Throughout his life, Joseph always held down several jobs “around the clock” to support his family, his son said. Like Simmonds, Rodney credits his father with passing on the work ethic that led him to get his own work permit at age 15 and become the first in his immediate family to go to college. 

The two also bonded on the tennis court, trading notes on pro tournaments and remaining each other’s main match partners. After hearing his father was home sick with the flu and a bad cough, Rodney texted with him to check in. He had no idea it would be the last time they would talk. Over a week after losing his father, he said he was still “in shock.”

Joseph’s passing came just a day before his sixth wedding anniversary to the woman he called his “Queen” – his wife, Hawaii Joseph, age 65. The couple met a dozen years ago while working at a center for adults with disabilities. On the night they were first scheduled to work together, Hawaii Joseph’s son was seriously injured in an accident and she couldn’t come in. Though they’d never met, Joseph found her number, called and asked if he could pray with her. He called the next day, too, and the next. Eventually, they decided to go on a date to the movies.

The couple loved to travel together – from the Caribbean, where Joseph grew up in Dominica, to Hawaii and Mexico. Sometimes, they would take a weekend getaway to Manhattan, Joseph’s favorite local destination. They had planned to celebrate their recent birthdays with a mid-March trip to Las Vegas, where they were married, but ended up canceling the trip as the virus spread. 

“We were like peanut butter and jelly, we were like left and right,” Hawaii Joseph said, “like a pair of eyes that blink at the same time.” 

On a phone call a week after his passing, Joseph’s wife recalled all that was musical and magical about her husband. He filled the couple’s home with his favorite music – jazz, R&B and anything by Beyoncé. At night, he would play the ukulele in bed to help his wife relax. “Heavenly Strong” was a song he wrote just for her, she said, in addition to several duets they recorded together.  

Then there were the days he’d call her from work on his break, Hawaii Joseph said, to sing to her, or to ask her: “Has anybody told you I love you today?”

Eric, a youth counselor, and Hawaii Joseph in Honolulu in 2018.

Eric and Hawaii Joseph in Honolulu in 2018. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Joseph.

Though his wife had tried to persuade him to slow down in recent years, Joseph loved his work, she said, and would often sign up for extra training or stay past the end of his shift for staff meetings. When he came home, he often slept just a few hours before heading off to his second job as an in-home caretaker for an older man, someone his wife said he “always kept laughing.”

After taking some scheduled time off, Joseph returned to work on March 18 and soon got a call that someone at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19. When he later developed a fever and cough, his wife cared for him at home for several days, working around the clock to treat him with an inhaler, hot baths, vitamins and hot liquids, she said. 

But when he woke up struggling to breathe, she called 911. First responders found Joseph’s oxygen levels were dangerously low. 

On a FaceTime call from the hospital, he initially told her he was starting to feel better after receiving oxygen. The next day, however, he was struck by another coughing bout and was soon sedated and placed on a ventilator. Medical staff called Hawaii Joseph each day after making their rounds, and for several days, his condition remained stable. On the sixth day, his vitals began to slip and the hospital invited her to come see her husband, despite a no-visitors policy that has become commonplace as the outbreak intensified.

“I know you’re trying, I know you’re fighting, I know you want to come home,” she told him, wearing full protective gear as she prayed at his bedside. “But if you’re tired, you go ahead on with God, I understand.”

Soon after returning home, she got the call that her husband had passed away. Grieving with her are her nine children, who she says were the couple’s closest friends, and her mother, who adored her daughter’s husband so much she asked if he had a brother she could date.

Joseph is also survived by his mother, Phyllis Jamarie, 89, whom he visited nearly every year in her London home, where his pictures are so prominent Angela Simmonds calls it “a shrine” to her uncle. He called his mother often, sometimes playing the ham by pretending to be an advertiser. As his mother’s health declined in recent years, Joseph was Angela’s “go-to support person” as she cared for “Nan.” When she last spoke to her uncle, a week before his death, Joseph was so focused on his mother’s recovery from a recent stroke that he didn’t even mention his own illness. 

In a cruel coincidence in the fast-paced pandemic that has claimed at least 100,000 lives across the globe, Joseph’s mother is now battling the same virus in a hospital an ocean away. Simmonds said she has been too weak to be told the disease had claimed her only son’s life. Joseph was predeceased by his younger sister,  Simmonds’ mother Vanya Applewhite.

granddaughter

Eric Joseph holds his granddaughter Marlee at her christening last year. Photo courtesy of Rodney Joseph.

In addition to his sons, Joseph is survived by three grandchildren – Anthony’s sons Anthony Joseph Jr., 18, and Lenard Joseph, 16, and Rodney’s daughter Marlee Joseph, 1 – and one great-granddaughter, Arianna Joseph, 2.

At MercyFirst, Joseph is remembered as “a pillar in the foundation of the house,” according to an email from Jacqueline McKelvey, the New York agency’s chief program officer. 

Children gravitated toward him. Joseph’s former supervisor Martin King recalled one young boy who always looked forward to being woken up by Mr. E while living away from his family. Several former residents have called the center long after leaving, asking to speak with him; one young man wanted to let his old mentor know that he was joining the military. 

In the 14 years they worked together, Duffy said, she saw Joseph use his gift for connection day in and day out. 

“He would put his arm around the kids and say, ‘let’s talk about this,’ or he’d tell them a story from his youth just to change up everything,” she said. “He will be missed.”

This story has been updated with additional information from his surviving family members.

Megan Conn can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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