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Joseph M. Joeb, former Hillsborough teacher, beloved curmudgeon, pens his own obituary

TAMPA — It would surprise no one who knew Joseph M. Joeb that he wrote his own obituary. Or how he wrote it.

Mr. Joeb, self-proclaimed curmudgeon, artist, author, parrot enthusiast and, most important, teacher, died last week at age 72 — "which was sooner than he wanted but pretty much when he expected," his obituary said. He had, after all, survived an earlier bout with lung cancer, and so he was already past his "sell by" date.

Employed by Hillsborough County schools for 22 years, Mr. Joeb wrote that his high standards for the junior high and high school students he taught got him labeled as the "meanest, evil-est, bad-est, nastiest" teacher on campus. Given the potential traffic jam of all those students wishing to "dance on his grave," the obituary announced, there would be no graveside service.

Like him, his final notice was sarcastic and witty. And, apparently not exactly true.

Posts on Mr. Joeb's Facebook page — where he recently and grumpily chastised those who use "alot" rather than "a lot" — leave a legacy of a different sort.

When I was his student, he was difficult, frustrating, and demanding. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized he was difficult because he needed to challenge me, frustrating because he wouldn't let me be lazy, and demanding because he knew he had to push my limits.

Another: I learned so much from you.

And another: I am grateful for everything you've taught me; you're one of the best teachers I've ever had.

"There were probably kids who didn't particularly like him, and I think it was because he made them work. He made them read the book," said former student Mike Bringuier, now an attorney. The lesson: "In life, you either read the book and get what you want, or you don't read it and you just get by."

Mr. Joeb was born in Maryland but considered himself a Tampa native. He was in the first four-year class at Chamberlain High ("and very nearly had to stay five," quips his obituary.) He did a stint as a Tampa police officer, an interesting career path to teaching. He was a member of Mensa who met his wife, Lee, a CPA, 30 years ago on a train from Tampa to West Palm Beach, where he was drawing caricatures for passengers. He did a good one of her.

"He was extremely intelligent and witty," she said. "And just a fun person to be with."

From his self-written, third-person obituary: He was politically incorrect, curmudgeonly, a fan of shaggy dog stories and elephant jokes and was disappointed that sarcasm was not considered a second language. Lee, his favorite of three successive wives and Jasmine, a blue and gold macaw who is jealous of Lee, survive him.

He was a registered Democrat who, his wife said, invariably voted Republican. He painted pastels and authored a book titled The Campus Curmudgeon's Compendium, a dictionary of "educational aphorisms" and "bureaucratic buzzwords."

A sampling: Academia: That portion of the education community that spends less time educating than writing about educating. The source of much of the incomprehensible jargon cited in this treatise. (see pontification.)

A natty dresser with a shaven head, Mr. Joeb considered himself a Socratic sort of teacher.

"He liked to get the kids to think," said David N. Smith, who was assistant principal at Ben Hill Junior High back when he hired Mr. Joeb to teach his first class. "He was a big proponent of the well-reasoned argument and would frequently take opposite sides of even what his beliefs were, just to get them to defend their position."

"Actually," Smith said, "he did that with everybody. He took a great deal of pleasure in debate."

He taught troubled students at Ben Hill, critical-thinking skills at Tampa Bay Tech and government and history at Sickles and Alonso high schools. He advocated for gifted programs, believing those students were poorly served in public schools.

Mr. Joeb liked to say he didn't get paid to teach, he got paid to put up with all the bureaucracy that came with teaching.

Students sometimes complained that he was unforgiving, demanding, that he expected them to read assignments and be able to discuss them. "But those were all complaints we were willing to accept," said Smith, his longtime friend.

Sometimes Mr. Joeb left on his desk a piece of paper with test answers on it — wrong answers, so he would later know who cribbed them. But he wouldn't fail the culprits, Bringuier recalled. He would tell them they had a gift, an ability they needed to use.

"He continued to keep pushing," Mr. Joeb's former student said, his message being, "do it all the way, or don't do it at all.'"

A memorial service for Joseph M. Joeb will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Blount & Curry Funeral Home, Carrollwood Chapel, 3207 W Bearss Ave. in Tampa. The family will receive guests beginning at 1 p.m.

Contact Sue Carlton at carlton@tampabay.com.

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