You’ve probably never heard of the musical duet known as “Joe and Verna,” which toured the Aroostook County circuit for nearly 25 years.
Their music, which consisted mostly of old-time tunes played on harmonica and piano, with the occasional washboard thrown in, didn’t have a broad appeal that could wow large audiences. After all, how many people clamor for songs like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Listen to the Mockingbird” anymore? But for many elderly folks in nursing homes from northern Maine to Bangor, “Joe and Verna” was an act that always brightened their days, that got them singing and tapping their feet.
Joe Corriveau, the harmonica-playing half of the duo, died last week in Patten, at the age of 91. And with his passing, northern Maine lost a funny and charming character who exemplified the essence of volunteerism and the generosity of spirit that can make such a difference in the world.
“Joe was one of a kind, that’s for sure,” said Verna MacArthur, 87, of Island Falls, a pianist who met Joe in the early 1980s through the Retired Senior Volunteer Program of Aroostook County. “He’ll be missed by so many people.”
When I had the pleasure of talking with Joe and Verna for a column about a year-and-a-half ago, I was impressed not only by their love of music but by the great lengths they went to in order to share that love with their audiences of elderly shut-ins. As volunteers, they never took a dime for what they did. Although both lived on Social Security, they spent their own money – and the occasional small donation from friends – to pay their travel expenses, even when gas prices soared. As Verna told me then, “When you’re a volunteer, you’re a volunteer all the way.” Joe agreed, suggesting that he and Verna could always ride bicycles to their gigs if they had to.
“I think Verna and I have something that some other people our age don’t,” Joe said. “We have a real love for something.”
The old friends couldn’t even guess how many miles they’d traveled over the years while doing five shows a month in nursing homes from Houlton all the way up to Eagle Lake, Frenchville, Madawaska and Caribou. Joe bought a new small car in 2003 and put more than 45,000 miles on it in just two years. Not bad for a couple of troupers who, by the end of their performing careers, were older than many of the people they played for.
“Even when he was sick the last two months, Joe wanted to make sure I kept him on the schedule here,” said Mavis Smallwood, activities director for the Mountain Heights Health Care Facility in Patten. “He just didn’t want to give up that harmonica. He just added so much to the lives of people. You can’t replace somebody like Joe.”
Steve Farnham, who heads the senior volunteer program for Aroostook County, said Joe was typical of many people of his generation for whom being of service is a personal mandate.
“I think it’s part of the make-up of that generation,” he said, “people who are unselfish and so appreciative of all that life’s given them that they see it as an obligation to give something back.”
At 87, Verna figure’s she’s had a good long run at the keyboard.
“Yes, I believe my musical touring days are over,” she said. “But I will miss those days, and I’ll miss Joe. An awful lot of people will.”