Joe Walker sat at a table in the back of The Gem Diner on a snowy Thursday in December. With his white beard and light blue eyes, he knew the image he had cut.
“I get asked to play Santa a lot,” he said with a laugh.
Perfect. Walker, now 67, is a very friendly person, and for decades his job was to attend celebrations with colorful gifts. However, he brought balloons instead of toys.
Walker is the founder of Balloons Over Syracuse, a 45-year-old balloon store in the city. When he handed over the business to his friend in 2014 after battling two serious illnesses, he thought he was settling into retirement. After all, he seems busier now.
Released from the balloon, Walker has devoted himself to Syracuse as a humble worker for many of the oldest volunteer groups. He is a member of the Rotary Club, a stonemason, a member of the Eastwood Neighborhood Association, and a member of the 100 Black Men of Syracuse. He heads Syracuse’s Blessing Box Foods his pantry’s annual winter event, serving in ways big and small.
“He loves to give,” said Blessing Box founder Tai Shaw, who has known Walker since the late ’60s.
“He’s just passionate about people.”
Walker grew up in a housing project on Fabius Street in Syracuse. An immigrant from Beirut, his mother struggled to cope with the huge disruption of moving here.
“She was beautiful and depressed,” said Walker.
Walker left home when he was 12. Still, he wanted to make sure he was on his way to college, he said. He thought he had a better chance of doing it alone.
As a child, “I was a really angry person,” he said. “I was mad at the world.”
He was camping at the Greater Syracuse YMCA when his friend, the Towel Boy, invited him to stay at the family’s house.
“It was the first time I knew true kindness,” Walker said.
Sometimes he and his dad would get together outside SU football games to sell balloons and use the steam vents to keep warm in the frigid cold. Ballooning would not be his future, he decided.
He worked errands to earn a living, continued to improve his grades, and applied to Syracuse and Harvard. He was accepted by both, but he chose SU, he said.
He loved learning and loved making people smile. He helped organize his marathon, a muscular dystrophy dance at SU, set up a blood drive, and an Alpha Phi Omega service, he said, where he was a member of a fraternity.
He did well in his school’s law department, and the university suddenly canceled his scholarship during his senior year. They called his mother, he said, and she gave them the wrong answers about his living situation, which changed his scholarship status.
For a while he continued to attend classes that weren’t in the textbook, but eventually he melted away from college life. A year later his mother died.
It was a bad time. But Walker is always incredibly energetic.
“If you look back too much, you will stumble,” he said.
So he turned his attention to finding a stable job. It appeared in a balloon. This time he leaned forward.
“Thinking about it, the best thing for me would have been to escape the gravity of what’s here,” he said.
“But to be honest, it gave me a great life.”
The balloon business grew rapidly. He opened several stores in galleries in Manlius, Fayetteville, and Syracuse. He was a staple at events around town, including St. Patrick’s Day, his parades, auto expos, city block parties, high school events, downtown farmers’ markets, birthdays, and weddings.
He had a steady salary and a business that brought joy to people.
He handed out balloons as much as he could. He delivered balloons to children at Upstate Medical Center. He has donated to Bella House, the Kidney Foundation, an early gay pride event in Syracuse, an AIDS fundraiser, students opposing disruptive decisions, the CROP Hunger Walk, and many more.
He brought balloons to his first date with his future wife, Vicki.
Vicky and Joe Walker married in 1987 under the lavender balloon arch.
Walker wound up and plugged in who he could be with while he built a good life. , gave business advice to employees to start their own projects, and brought gifts to charity events.
Then, in 2008, Walker received a nasty diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension. He closed his shop, let go of his employees, and continued his business on a much smaller scale. His health was deteriorating and his medical bills were skyrocketing.
In 2016, when death’s door opened, his wife loaded him into the back seat of a car and drove him to Rochester to get a second opinion.
Doctors told them it wasn’t high blood pressure. A drug for diagnosis. They make you sick, he said.
Walker stopped his old medication and immediately began to feel better. But it felt like a second lease on his life: he had more time.
“I got through both of them,” he casually said. “I will live to be 1000 years old.”
He had already committed it, so he handed over his balloon business to his friend.
Christine Corbett, director of philanthropy at David’s Refuge in Syracuse, saw Walker and his wife handing out candy wrappers to children at one of her organization’s events.
The Walker family made small packages of soft and hard candy, so children could choose packets according to their sensory preferences.
“He’s an incredibly thoughtful person,” Corbett said. “He is the most generous in fair love.”
At the Gem Diner, Walker collected leftovers. After spending his day in his Blessing Box hood in his pantry, he wore a red suit for the kids and attended Mason’s Holiday his party.
“I always wanted to be Santa Claus,” he admitted. “The idea of this 6-foot-6 big guy is hugging everyone and enjoying the world.”
Jules Struck I write about life and culture in and around Syracuse.contact her anytime email@example.com or on Instagram julestruck.journo.