BATH, Maine — When his wife, Joanie, died in 2006, Joe Grace didn’t know what he was going to do with himself. They’d been married for 55 years. At nearly 80, Grace found himself alone in the rambling, old house on Lincoln Street where they raised six children.
That’s when an Irish pub opened up at the foot of the hill, just around the corner. Since then, it’s become his second home, filled with friends who feel like family. But Grace, now 91, doesn’t go there for the booze.
He goes to sing Irish songs. He has to.
“It keeps me going,” Grace said. “It’s why I’m still here, I think. I live for it — it’s happiness, I guess.”
He’s been a fixture at the Sunday afternoon Irish-American singalongs with the band Bitter Brew at Byrnes’ Pub since the sessions started in 2008. Sitting at a table down front, he resembles a dapper leprechaun in an Irish sweater, his twinkling eyes set between a pair of rosy, red cheeks. Grace sings all the old chestnuts with the ladies in the band, hoisting his mug, clapping along and occasionally humming on a kazoo.
When the band takes a break, they give him the stage and he sings by himself, reading from pages handwritten in pencil.
“The only times he’s not here is when he’s sick or in Ireland,” said Cyndi Longo, Bitter Brew’s singer and bodhran player. “He’s the patron saint of the pub.”
“If he’s not here on Sunday, something’s wrong,” said Maggie Byrnes from behind the bar. “That’s when I call one of his daughters to make sure he’s OK.”
Grace usually attends with his daughter Kathy Nadeau.
“Mom had been gone about a year-and-a-half,” Nadeau said, “and when we started going to the singalong — Byrnes’ just adopted him. He’s a rockstar down there.”
Another singing regular, Randy Dutremble, agrees.
“He’s the backbone of this place. He’s the star,” Dutremble said.
It’s not so surprising when you consider Grace’s biography. It’s stuffed with adventure. He has an unlimited number of tales and there’s no way to do them justice in a single newspaper story.
To start, Grace’s real name is Homer — as in the author of western literature’s first great adventure yarn, the Odyssey. He’s gone by the short version of his middle name, Joe, since he was a child but in Bath, everybody just calls him Mr. Grace.
As a kid in Tonawanda, New York, he delivered the evening paper to the family whose son inspired Steven Speilberg’s blockbuster film “Saving Private Ryan.” In the U.S. Navy, Grace was aboard the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid in March 1965 when they recovered astronauts John Young, Virgil “Gus” Grissom — along with their two-person Gemini space capsule — after a three-orbit, five-hour space flight.
Today, if you drive onto the decommissioned Navy base in Brunswick, you’ll find an old, P-2 Neptune airplane on display. Grace flew it to Maine from the west coast and completed 38 missions aboard it, chasing Russian submarines across the North Atlantic. He also piloted Navy transport planes on and off aircraft carriers on the high seas.
He met his wife Joanie in his hometown in 1947. For their first date, he took her to the harness races.
“We broke the fan belt on my Dad’s car and it took a while to get a new one on,” Grace said. “I got Joanie home after her eleven o’clock curfew and she was grounded for two weeks. That was our start. It was not very auspicious but it worked out OK.”
He still chortles and beams talking about it now. Grace called her every day while she was grounded and visited every day for a month after that. He was smitten.
“Then I left for the navy and she wrote to me every day, all four years in the Naval Academy,” Grace said.
He proposed to Joanie in 1950. They were married eight days after he graduated from the academy in June 1951. Barring deployments, Joanie followed Grace wherever his Navy career took them — including Europe and Newfoundland. In 1971, he retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and they decided to call Bath their permanent home. The couple had six children, eight grandchildren and, now, three great grandchildren.
“We had 59 years of fun,” Grace said. “She loved to cook — she lived to cook. She had a bookcase full of cookbooks and she could have written all of them.”
He buried her in a smart suit with a lapel pin reading, “On Santa’s Naughty List.”
He still misses his Joanie, a lot. Grace carries a creased photocopy of a local newspaper account of her funeral in his pocket every day. He said he reads it often and cries a little every time.
But singing Irish songs at the pub with his friends helps with the sadness. Grace — who states he’s five-eighths Irish with some Swiss, English and Scottish thrown in — has visited the Emerald Isle 13 times. While singing along in a pub there on his first trip in 1983, a local musician was heard asking: “Who is this Yank that knows all our songs?”
Singing in his local pub has led to regular gigs serenading residents at five nearby nursing homes where many of the residents are younger than Grace.
He started celebrating his August birthday at Byrne’s when he turned 80. That’s when Grace first danced on the bar. He’s done it every year since. He’s usually accompanied by a bagpipe band playing “The Rakes of Mallow” faster and faster, whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
“He’s fine. He’s survived plane crashes.” said MamaBeth Revels of Bitter Brew. “It’s the rest of us that have the heart attacks.”
Somewhere along the way, pub owner Joe Byrne (a retired Navy Master Chief) declared that Grace would get free beer and food for life. That’s the way it is with family, even a second family.
“And if someone new comes in, we welcome them like family, too,” Grace said.
On his way out the door a few Sundays ago, fellow pub singer Dutremble turned and said, “People don’t come here to get drunk. They come here to be home.”