Copyright 2017 by Diane Sward Rapaport
Joey van Leeuwen died on November 2 by his own hand in Jerome, AZ. Katie Lee, his partner for 36 years, died peacefully the night before. Joey was 85 years old.
Among friends, it was always Katie and Joey, never one without the other. They had increasing disabilities, and for many years, told each other that they could not live without the help of the other. It’s how it is when people age and need to rely on one another.
Joey loved birds, painted portraits of them, carved them, and wrote and illustrated a little gem of a book called The Birds of Jerome. Anyone who walked into Katie and Joey’s home immediately saw a virtual aviary: hawks, eagles and ravens that Joey had carved hanging from the ceiling; doves, ducks, hummingbirds, owls, swallows, and finches perched on window sills and bookcases, a blue heron for the backporch.
Joey planted an arboretum in his backyard, eighty-six trees, almost as many as there are birds in his book, including chokecherry, hackberry, mulberry, elderberry, squawbush, California buckthorn, walnut, peach, and apricot, eight species of pine and many Gambel oaks. He grew three different types of cherries on one tree. In the evening, he and Katie would sit on the back porch with binoculars and watch the birds feast on a smorgasbord of fruits, berries and nuts.
It gave Katie much pleasure, until some of the trees grew so tall they obscured some of the incredible views of the Verde Valley and red rock canyons beyond. Joey trimmed the trees best he could.
I had the pleasure of hiking with Katie and Joey, not only in the remote Utah canyons, but on a camping trip to Western Australia in 1986. He was a gentle, tall, canny and modest man, as steadfast a friend as I could ever want, with a sweetness that balanced Katie’s more caustic aspects.
Friends and I nicknamed him Hawkeye. He could name a bird at the flick of a color, the shape of a tail, the nest it wove, or from a feather lodged in a prickly pear cactus. He could imitate their songs. Once he told me he watched long-tailed grass finches in Western Australia become drunk on termites. In the spring, the termites secrete some kind of acid that makes the birds so drunk they can hardly fly.
A child’s curiosity and an adult’s skepticism about certain so-called ‘facts’ once led Joey to painting a dozen aluminum cans with a wild bouquet of colors. He filled them with sugar water and sat back to observe which color hummingbirds preferred. “Which ones, Joey,” I asked. “Red. They like red.” He had to find out for himself.
He was born in Holland, emigrated to Australia where he worked on a sheep station in Western Australia for many years, before moving to Jerome, AZ in 1978 to live with Katie. In Australia, Joey was a member of many bird clubs and was sought after for his expertise on aviaries. He fell in love with Katie Lee and moved to Jerome too soon to finish his book of Australian bird lore, “The ABCs of Bird Keeping.”
It takes a gentle person to observe their quirky habits and make them companions. Joey’s reward was pure pleasure, a quenching of curiosity and a deepening of knowledge for its own sake. Joey had those traits, as well as the capacity to love without aggression.
Before he died, Joey meticulously labeled which of his carvings were to be gifted to friends. He gifted me one called “Singing Coyote.” I’d like to think he read my tribute to Katie, where I mentioned some of the most magical moments in the canyons, where she played her beat-up guitar (which Joey carried in his backpack) and sang, with the coyotes adding their wild harmonies. I’d like to think Joey and Katie are somewhere in the wild canyons, hand-in-hand singing along with those wild coyote yips.
Joey is survived by two brothers, three children in Australia, Stephen, Elizabeth and Joanne, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.