Pennsylvania Yankee finds a permanent home in Salisbury

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 15, 2011

SALISBURY — During my first week as a young reporter in North Carolina, I was interviewing the head of the Cabarrus County Rescue Squad when he stopped me in mid sentence.
My Northern accent led him to pose a question.
He told me — and all Southerners know this — that plain ol’ Yankees come to visit and go back home where they belong. Damn Yankees come and stay.
“Which one are you?” the rescue squad chief asked.
I can answer with confidence now, after 33 years, that I’m a damn Yankee.
So is Joe Riley.
Back in 1941, Riley’s high school principal in Roaring Spring, Pa., told Joe he might be college material. Riley was, as he likes to say, “flabbergasted.” He considered himself a weak student at best. But he was 17 years old and wanted to avoid a future of working in the town’s paper mill, where his father was an accountant.
Riley knew other athletic-minded boys in the Roaring Spring-Altoona area who were going south to a little college in Salisbury, N.C., called Catawba.
Riley thought it was worth a shot. He sat down at the dining room table and, after crumpling up several drafts, composed a letter to Catawba that spoke of his prowess in football, basketball, baseball and track‚ in case any scholarships were available.
He neglected to mention that he was only 5 feet, 71/2 inches tall and 128 pounds. “And that ain’t football size,” Riley noted.
Riley heard back from Catawba, which sent along a school catalog. There were no scholarships, but he could work for the school food service for $50 a semester ($100 a year). Total room and board and tuition was going to be $450.
Riley and his father, Dick Sr., figured he had enough money to get through one year. After that, the paper mill loomed big in his future.
“Because of that letter, here I am,” Riley, now 87, says from the living room of his Salisbury home.
Famed Catawba College football coach Gordon Kirkland must have grumbled when the undersized Riley arrived for football practice in August 1941. Still, the coach ended up giving Riley a uniform and a spot on the sidelines.
Riley laughs at how big his uniform was. Everything — the shoulder pads, thigh pads and knee pads — seemed to scrape together. “I couldn’t move,” he says.
He also was handed size 13 shoes.
Riley later tried out for basketball and baseball without success. His true sport was track. In high school, he had run a 440 in 51.3 seconds, when college runners of the day were posting times of about 48 seconds. “I could have been Olympic material for all I know,” Riley says.
Kirkland hated track and wouldn’t even award letters to students who participated in the sport. So there weren’t going to be any track scholarships, either.
Riley’s money actually lasted through the first semester of his sophomore year at Catawba before he went home and was drafted by the Army for World War II. His brothers would kid him that he engineered a miracle by becoming a medic and serving most of his war days in Europe driving an ambulance.
Riley claims he was given a military aptitude test which showed, “I couldn’t do anything. It wasn’t my fault.”
He spent much of his war time in London, France and Belgium before returning to the States and completing his schooling at Catawba (Class of 1948), courtesy of the GI bill. Riley says Catawba “ran all the veterans through”‘ because it needed the money, leaving these older students to do a lot of beer drinking and carousing.
Wachovia Bank came to the campus on a recruitment visit when he was a senior and signed up Riley as a banking officer.
It started his 37-year career as a Salisbury banker — 23 years with Wachovia and 14 years with Northwestern. He specialized in small loans, making money available to his customers for things such as dump trucks, cars, airplanes and household improvements.
Riley became a good judge of character. Over his 37 years, he had only two loans that went south.
As you can imagine, a lot of people came to know Riley. A Northwestern Bank colleague stopped by his desk one day and said, “You know, when you came here the phone started ringing.”
Riley stayed in Salisbury thanks to college, the Wachovia job and his marriage to Martha Wall. The couple had four children — three girls and a boy — and they were in their 39th year together when Martha died of cancer.
Riley says he quit smoking and drinking to take care of Martha before she died. His boss, Jerry White, allowed the time off necessary for him to travel with Martha to Duke University Medical Center for blood transfusions.
Some time later, he married Barbara, with whom he has been married 22 years. “I’ve been married all my life and been happy,” Riley says. “Southern ladies have a special quality, especially ones such as mine. They’re just complete ladies.”
Through the years, Riley served in the Jaycees, when the local organization was tops in the country for the number of projects it performed. Riley led many of those projects for fellow Jaycee Henry Bernhardt.
Riley used to golf a lot — always on the weekends and in the annual Labor Day tournaments. But his health has curtailed the golf.
Riley has fought diabetes for many years. He also has dealt with heart bypasses, gall bladder surgery and back repairs. His legs cope with neuropathy now, and he has given up driving.
But he still goes to the Hurley Family YMCA three times a week for the weight room and water aerobics. He also has bonded like brothers with YMCA employee Karl Lankford.
The duo try to eat lunch together four days out of the week — Mondays at Richard’s, Wednesdays at Pizza Hut, Thursdays at Rick’s and Fridays at Taco Bell. Riley reserves Tuesdays for going to Jeter’s with Barbara.
“I’ve been blessed,” he says.
Barbara believes her husband has three guardian angels, but Joe corrects her.
“No, I have just one,” he says, “but he works overtime.”
Raised a Catholic but now an Episcopalian, Riley likes a prayer attributed to St. Theresa, the Saint of the Little Ways:
May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into our bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of you.
Riley keeps the prayer by his living room chair and reads it every day.
Like the damn Yankee he is, it sticks with you.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or