When Joseph Fitzpatrick died on July 21, Niagara University lost more than an alumnus. Fitzpatrick, ’09, was a friend and colleague to many, an artist and activist – a present day embodiment of St. Vincent de Paul.
Word of Fitzpatrick’s passing was met with great sadness on Monteagle Ridge. Several staff and faculty members offered remembrances of the 24-year-old Niagara Falls native who had a special passion for community service.
“Joe Fitzpatrick’s passion for life, his unselfish love of all people, and his commitment to justice made the world around him a better place,” said Dr. Jim McCutcheon, associate professor of Spanish. “Joe will be missed terribly, but his love for life and humanity will endure in those who knew him.”
Dr. Doug Tewksbury, assistant professor of communication studies, added, “He was most definitely a student who took the university’s social justice mission to heart and put his money where his mouth was, particularly after he graduated (he was one of the first members of the Occupy Buffalo movement and used to ride his bike from Niagara Falls to attend). He attended a panel I put together last fall on the Occupy Movement and spoke passionately about the need to fight for the poor.”
Even before earning his liberal arts diploma (with a concentration in multicultural studies), Fitzpatrick was heavily involved in community activism. He joined ReNU Niagara in 2008, working to foster interest among local youths to plan, implement and maintain the “Keeping it Green” community vegetable garden in the city’s south end. The Niagara Falls Boys and Girls Club has taken on the responsibilities since then and the garden lives on as a community asset to this day.
Fitzpatrick also assisted ReNU staff in researching and writing a grant to the East Hill Foundation to fund the Highland Greenfield Initiative, which consisted of the development of a community vegetable garden, a low maintenance green space and an entryway to the Highland neighborhood. According to ReNU Niagara Executive Director Jill Shuey, Fitzpatrick was also instrumental in convincing the foundation to fund additional items for the project, including a greenhouse, composters and rain barrels. The Highland Community Vegetable Garden was formally dedicated at the Niagara Falls School District’s Henry J. Kalfas Elementary School in the fall of 2009.
“Joe’s passion for learning how to engage residents in improving their neighborhoods and shining a spotlight on injustice is a legacy that will live on through the two community gardens that he gave his time and talent to help create,” Shuey stated. “Joe was and will always be an invaluable member of the ReNU team.”
Dr. David Taylor, associate criminal justice professor and director of NU’s Institute for Civic Engagement, is another person who never had Fitzpatrick as a student, but knew him well from his work outside the classroom.
“Joe and I share a passion for Niagara Falls,” he began. “He would come to me occasionally with his newest idea of how to make life better for the residents of the falls.”
Dr. Taylor recalled that Fitzpatrick thought that establishing a disc golf course in an undeveloped area downtown would provide a significant benefit for Niagara Falls residents. With preliminary drawings for the course in hand, he approached the mayor to pitch his idea during a Day of Play event that NU was hosting in the city.
“While that might have been a bit out of the ordinary, it was how Joe operated,” Dr. Taylor explained. “But he was such a kind soul, and good and gentle person, that no one ever minded. Joe had an absolutely incredible sense of justice and compassion for all people and he pursued that with great passion. Those of us who were lucky enough to know Joe are all much better for it.”
Several other current and former Niagara professors had fond memories of Fitzpatrick.
Dr. Todd Schoepflin, assistant professor of sociology, stated, “I can picture Joe walking into my classroom and sitting in the middle of the room. He entered with a serious look on his face. This was a student who was ready to learn. He always participated in class discussions in a passionate way. It was a joy to have him as a student. I loved talking with Joe in my office and will miss him dearly. He surrounded himself with creative people from diverse backgrounds. Joe could not be satisfied with status quo; he was someone who insisted on making change. Thoughts of Joe will always inspire me.”
As a student, Fitzpatrick worked closely with Dr. Seneca Vaught, a former assistant professor of history at NU who now works for Kennesaw State University. On his experience with Fitzpatrick, Dr. Vaught said, “It is not often that we come across students that embody our aspirations so closely that we call them protégés. Joseph Fitzpatrick was that kind student to many of us. He was the type of student who really understood what higher education was about in the sense that his classes were always lessons to be applied in the laboratory of life, lessons to push us to become better human beings, not at some distant point in the future but here and now. Joe was a passionate soul, an able leader and a gifted student who showed me that teaching really does matter and that you really can make an impact by the things you do and say in the classroom. I always looked forward to the questions that Joe asked; he always asked about things that would make you think not only about what you taught but how you taught it.”
Dr. Kenneth Culton, associate professor of sociology, expressed his recollection of Fitzpatrick succinctly and emphatically. “Joe was greatly committed to transforming thoughts into action in an effort to right the wrongs of the world as he discovered them. No student impressed me more in my time at NU.”
In what he calls a fitting description for how Fitzpatrick lived and how his love will endure beyond his death, Dr. McCutcheon shared a poem by late Spanish author Francisco de Quevedo.
The final shadow may close my eyes,
carry me off from white of day,
unchaining my soul at the hour
of its anxious desire:
but it will not leave the memory
of that other shore where once it burned:
for my fire can swim me through the frigid water,
regardless of the strictures of law.
“A soul which once imprisoned an entire God,
veins that brought fuel to such flames,
marrow that so gloriously burned:
they’ll leave this body, but not its cares:
ash they’ll be, yet still aware;
they will be dust, but dust in love.
Fitzpatrick is survived by his parents and two older brothers.