Joseph Kerest, 79

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 10:30pm
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Joseph (“Joe”) Patrick Kerest of Corn Neck Road, born Aug. 9, 1938 and aged 79, died peacefully, on Saturday, Aug. 19, at South County Hospital in Wakefield, R.I., after battling numerous illnesses over the past 16 years. Joe, who never allowed his various illnesses to undermine his positive attitude or to define him, was an adored husband, father, grandfather, and Block Island community member.

Joe was born in Kiev, Ukraine where he lived as a young boy. Joe and his mother, Helena, immigrated to the United States in the mid-1940s following political persecution by the Stalin regime. In the United States, Joe was raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn by his mother Helena and stepfather, also named Joseph. 

Joe attended Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn, where he was a champion swimmer. Following high school, Joe turned down several college swimming scholarships to join the U.S. Navy. In the U.S. Navy, Joe traveled the world and learned to be an electrician. He also became an avid freediver, a hobby that he would later enjoy in the waters around Block Island.

After serving in the U.S. Navy, Joe worked as an electrician for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, maintaining the electrical systems of the New York City subway. While working for the MTA, Joe attended the City College of New York at night, eventually earning his B.S. and a teacher’s certificate. During the summers, Joe was a lifeguard at Jones Beach on Long Island and spent his free time spearfishing for striped bass off the jetties of Robert Moses State Park.

Joe met the love of his life, Naomi, in the late 1960s while they both were public school teachers at the Finley School in Harlem, N.Y. Feeling sick at school one day, Naomi needed someone to drive her home in her car. Joe, an art teacher at the time, was the only available volunteer who knew how to drive a standard transmission. Joe and Naomi were married in 1972 and lived together in Manhattan; Hastings, N.Y., where Joe was a volunteer firefighter; South Salem, NY, where Joe enjoyed long walks in Mountain Lakes Park; and Block Island.

An ill-fated sailing trip with an intended final destination of Block Island in the summer of 1979 ended with Joe and Naomi’s sailboat aground in Watch Hill, R.I. This result led Joe and Naomi and a friend to visit the Island by ferry in the fall of that year. Shortly after that visit, Joe and Naomi sold their sailboat and bought their house on Corn Neck Road.

As Joe and Naomi continued their teaching careers, Joe spent more than 25 years as a special education high school teacher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, teaching high-school students who were living in the hospital while receiving treatment for various forms of cancer. During this time, Naomi and Joe spent long summers on Block Island with their son, Kolo, and their Newfoundland dog, Wilson. During these summers, Joe sailed out of the Block Island Club with Kolo and explored the beaches and waters all around the Island, almost always with his spearfishing gear in hand. 

After retiring from their teaching jobs in 1997, Joe and Naomi lived almost full time on Block Island, spending some winters away near Kolo and his family in Ithaca, N.Y. and Portland, Maine.

While off island, Joe loved spending time in the art library at Cornell University, cheering for the Cornell hockey team at Lynah Rink, and walking Naomi and Joe’s beloved Sealyham terriers, August and Schnitzel, through the streets of Portland. After his illnesses curbed his ability to continue spearfishing and sailing, Joe would spend hours at his desk on Block Island reading and drawing and creating other types of artwork to share with friends and family.

Joe and Naomi were married for 45 years, never spending a night apart until Joe’s many required hospitalizations began in the early 2000s.

Joe and Naomi’s son — Kolo and his wife, Susannah, of Shelburne, Vermont — were at the center of Joe’s life. Joe’s two grandchildren, Helena and Lewis, adored their Poppi Joe, and he loved their visits to Block Island, when he would make them laugh and gain strength from their youthful energy.

Joe was also beloved by his late sister, Maureen Reiner; his brothers-in-law, Peter Waelsch of Melrose, Mass. and Joseph Reiner of Denver, N.C.; his sister-in-law Patricia Waelsch of Melrose, Mass.; his niece, Talia Waelsch of Bondi Beach, Australia; his nephews, Joseph Reiner of Cornelius, N.C., Francis Reiner of Cresskill, N.J., and Christopher Waelsch of Winchester, Mass.; his best friend, Gary Brandow of Oceanside, N.Y.; and his many friends and acquaintances on Block Island. 

Joe formed lasting bonds with almost everyone he met on Block Island — in good times and in difficult times — often from the passenger seat of Naomi and Joe’s white Volvo in later years. Special thanks and love go to the Block Island Rescue Squad and the staff of the Block Island Medical Center, who saved Joe’s life many times over the past several years. In addition, Joe’s Catholic faith and the support offered by his many friends at St. Andrew Catholic Church provided immeasurable comfort as Joe battled many illnesses over the past 16 years.

A mass of Christian burial will be held on Saturday, Sept. 9 at 1 p.m. at St. Andrew Catholic Church. A celebration of Joe will be held the same day, details to come. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations in honor of Joe be made to the Block Island Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department or the Block Island Medical Center.