Joe Davis: A Redemption Story

Joe Davis
Joe Davis

In 1994, I came across an article in a Philadelphia newspaper about Joe Davis, a recovering drug addict, petty criminal, and paraplegic who was pursuing an associate’s degree at a local community college. The story mentioned that Joe occasionally visited schools to talk to at-risk young people about his experience. As I was pulling together profiles for the Townsend Press book Everyday Heroes, I thought Joe might make an interesting story. I arranged to attend one of his presentations, meeting him at a very scary, end-of-the-road disciplinary school in a bad part of town.

It is not an exaggeration to say that that evening changed my life. In the almost 30 years that I have worked for Townsend Press, I have met dozens of profile subjects, many of whom have deeply impressed me. None has begun to make the impact that Joe created. He became not only a beloved friend, but a personal hero. I’ve never known anyone who was more honest about his past, more passionate about the present, or more hopeful about the future. To say that I am honored to have been his friend is feeble understatement.

This piece, with its epilogue, will be published in the 5th edition of Townsend Press’s Groundwork for College Reading (2016). The textbook apparatus (Reading Preview, Words to Watch, and followup questions) demonstrates how the essay is used in the context of a college textbook.

Reading Preview

From age 14 on, Joe Davis followed a path that led him closer and closer to self-destruction. He lived in a world of drugs, guns, and easy money. In this world, he had no respect for himself or sympathy for others. Today Joe Davis is, in every way, a new man. Here is the story of how Joe saved his own life.

Words to Watch

option (6): choice

shown the ropes (10): shown how things should be done

rehabilitated (10): brought back to a good and healthy life

stickup man (11): someone who robs with a gun

went downhill (13): got worse

encountered (20): met

unruly (26): disorderly

hushed (27): quiet

Joe Davis was the coolest fourteen-year-old he’d ever seen.

He went to school when he felt like it. He hung out with a wild crowd. He started drinking some wine, smoking some marijuana. “Nobody could tell me anything,” he says today. “I thought the sun rose and set on me.” There were rules at home, and Joe didn’t do rules. So he moved in with his grandmother.

Joe Davis was the coolest sixteen-year-old he’d ever seen.

Joe’s parents gave up on his schooling and signed him out of the tenth grade. Joe went to work in his dad’s body shop, but that didn’t last long. There were rules there, too, and Joe didn’t do rules. By the time he was in his mid-teens, Joe was taking pills that got him high and even using cocaine. He was also smoking mari­juana all the time and drinking booze all the time.

Joe Davis was the coolest twenty-five-year-old he’d ever seen.

He was living with a woman almost twice his age. The situation wasn’t great, but she paid the bills, and certainly Joe couldn’t. He had his habit to support, which by now had grown to include heroin. Sometimes he’d work at a low-level job, if someone else found it for him. He might work long enough to get a paycheck and then spend it all at once. Other times he’d be caught stealing and get fired first. A more challenging job was not an option°, even if he had bothered to look for one. He couldn’t put words together to form a sentence, unless the sentence was about drugs. Filling out an application was difficult. He wasn’t a strong reader. He couldn’t do much with numbers. Since his drug habit had to be paid for, he started to steal. First he stole from his parents, then from his sister. Then he stole from the families of people he knew. But eventually the people he knew wouldn’t let him in their houses, since they knew he’d steal from them. So he got a gun and began holding people up. He chose elderly people and others who weren’t likely to fight back. The holdups kept him in drug money, but things at home were getting worse. His woman’s teenage daughter was getting out of line. Joe decided it was up to him to discipline her. The girl didn’t like it. She told her boyfriend. One day, the boyfriend called Joe out of the house.


Joe Davis was in the street, his nose in the dirt. His mind was still cloudy from his most recent high, but he knew something was terribly wrong with his legs. He couldn’t move them; he couldn’t even feel them. His mother came out of her nearby house and ran to him. As he heard her screams, he imagined what she was seeing. Her oldest child, her first baby, her bright boy who could have been and done anything, was lying in the gutter, a junkie with a .22 caliber bullet lodged in his spine.

The next time Joe’s head cleared, he was in a hospital bed, blinking up at his parents as they stared helplessly at him. The doctors had done all they could; Joe would live, to everyone’s surprise. But he was a paraplegic—paralyzed from his chest down. It was done. It was over. It was written in stone. He would not walk again. He would not be able to control his bladder or bowels. He would not be able to make love as he had before. He would not be able to hold people up, then hurry away.

Joe spent the next eight months being moved between several Philadelphia hospitals, where he was shown the ropes° of life as a para­plegic. Officially he was being “rehabilitated°”—restored to a productive life. There was just one problem: Joe. “To be rehabilitated, you must have been habilitated first,” he says today. “That wasn’t me.” During his stay in the hospitals, he found ways to get high every day.

Finally Joe was released from the hospital. He returned in his wheelchair to the house he’d been living in when he was shot. He needed someone to take care of him, and his woman friend was still willing. His drug habit was as strong as ever, but his days as a stickup man° were over. So he started selling drugs. Business was good. The money came in fast, and his own drug use accelerated even faster.

A wheelchair-bound junkie doesn’t pay much attention to his health and cleanliness. Eventually Joe developed his first bedsore: a deep, rotting wound that ate into his flesh, overwhelming him with its foul odor. He was admitted to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, where he spent six months on his stomach while the ghastly wound slowly healed. Again, he spent his time in the hospital using drugs. This time his drug use did not go unnoticed. Soon before he was scheduled to be discharged, hospital officials kicked him out. He returned to his friend’s house and his business. But then police raided the house. They took the drugs, they took the money, they took the guns.

“I really went downhill° then,” says Joe. With no drugs and no money to get drugs, life held little meaning. He began fighting with the woman he was living with. “When you’re in the state I was in, you don’t know how to be nice to anybody,” he says. Finally she kicked him out of the house. When his parents took him in, Joe did a little selling from their house, trying to keep it low-key, out of sight, so they wouldn’t notice. He laughs at the notion today. “I thought I could control junkies and tell them ‘Business only during certain hours.’” Joe got high when his monthly Social Security check came, high when he’d make a purchase for someone else and get a little something for himself, high when a visitor would share drugs with him. It wasn’t much of a life. “There I was,” he says, “a junkie with no education, no job, no friends, no means of supporting myself. And now I had a spinal cord injury.”

Then came October 25, 1988. Joe had just filled a prescription for pills to control his muscle spasms. Three hundred of the powerful muscle relaxants were there for the taking. He swallowed them all.

“It wasn’t the spinal cord injury that did it,” he says. “It was the addiction.”

Joe tried hard to die, but it didn’t work. A sister heard him choking and called for help. He was rushed to the hospital, where he lay in a coma for four days.

Joe has trouble finding the words to describe what happened next.

“I had . . . a spiritual awakening, for lack of any better term,” he says. “My soul had been cleansed. I knew my life could be better. And from that day to this, I have chosen not to get high.”

Drugs, he says, “are not even a temptation. That life is a thing that happened to someone else.”

Joe knew he wanted to turn himself around, but he needed help in knowing where to start. He enrolled in Magee Hospital’s vocational rehabilitation program. For six weeks, he immersed himself in discussions, tests, and exercises to help him determine the kind of work he might be suited for. The day he finished the rehab program, a nurse at Magee told him about a receptionist’s job in the spinal cord injury unit at Thomas Jefferson Hospital. He went straight to the hospital and met Lorraine Buchanan, coordinator of the unit. “I told her where I was and where I wanted to go,” Joe says. “I told her, ‘If you give me a job, I will never disappoint you. I’ll quit first if I see I can’t live up to it.’” She gave him the job. The wheelchair-bound junkie, the man who’d never been able to hold a job, the drug-dependent stickup man who “couldn’t put two words together to make a sentence” was now the first face, the first voice that patients encountered° when they entered the spinal cord unit. “I’d never talked to people like that,” says Joe, shaking his head. “I had absolutely no background. But Lorraine and the others, they taught me to speak. Taught me to greet people. Taught me to handle the phone.” How did he do in his role as a receptionist? A huge smile breaks across Joe’s face as he answers, “I did excellent.”

Soon, his personal life also took a very positive turn. A month after Joe started his job, he was riding a city bus to work. A woman recovering from knee surgery was in another seat. The two smiled, but didn’t speak.

A week later, Joe spotted the woman again. The bus driver sensed something was going on and encour­aged Joe to approach her. Her name was Terri. She was a receptionist in a law office. On their first date, Joe laid his cards on the table. He told her his story. He also told her he was looking to get married. “That about scared her away,” Joe recalls. “She said she wasn’t interested in marriage. I asked, ‘Well, suppose you did meet someone you cared about, who cared about you, and treated you well. Would you still be opposed to the idea of marriage?’ She said no, she would consider it then. I said, ‘Well, that’s all I ask.’”

Four months later, as the two sat over dinner in a restaurant, Joe handed Terri a box tied with a ribbon. Inside was a smaller box. Then a smaller box, and a smaller one still. Ten boxes in all. Inside the smallest was an engagement ring. After another six months, the two were married in the law office where Terri works. Since then, she has been Joe’s constant source of support, encouragement, and love.

After Joe had started work at Jefferson Hospital, he talked with his supervisor, Lorraine, about his dreams of moving on to something bigger, more challenging. She encouraged him to try college. He had taken and passed the high-school general equivalency diploma (GED) exam years before, almost as a joke, when he was recovering from his bedsores at Magee. Now he enrolled in a university mathematics course. He didn’t do well. “I wasn’t ready,” Joe says. “I’d been out of school seventeen years. I dropped out.” Before he could let discouragement overwhelm him, he enrolled at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), where he signed up for basic math and English courses. He worked hard, sharpening study skills he had never developed in his earlier school days. Next he took courses toward an associate’s degree in mental health and social services, along with a certificate in addiction studies. Five years later, he graduated from CCP, the first member of his family ever to earn a college degree. He then went on to receive a B.A. in mental health from Hahnemann University in Philadelphia and an M.A. in social work from the University of Pennsylvania.

Today, Joe is employed as a psychotherapist at John F. Kennedy Mental Health Center in Philadelphia. He does his best to get into the “real world,” the world of young men and women immersed in drugs, violence, and crime, Whenever he can, he speaks at local schools through a program called Think First. He tells young people about his drug use, his shooting, and his experience with paralysis.

At a presentation at a disciplinary school outside of Philadelphia, Joe gazes with quiet authority at the unruly° crowd of teenagers. He begins to speak, telling them about speedballs and guns, fast money and bedsores, even about the leg bag that collects his urine. At first, the kids snort with laughter at his honesty. When they laugh, he waits patiently, then goes on. Gradually the room grows quieter as Joe tells them of his life and then asks them about theirs. “What’s important to you? What are your goals?” he says. “I was still in school at age 40 because when I was young, I chose the dead-end route many of you are on. But now I’m doing what I have to do to get where I want to go. What are you doing?”

He tells them more, about broken dreams, about his parents’ grief, about the former friends who turned away from him when he was no longer a source of drugs. He tells them of the continuing struggle to regain the trust of people he once abused. He tells them about the desire that consumes him now, the desire to make his community a better place to live. His wish is that no young man or woman should have to walk the path he’s walked in order to value the precious gift of life. The teenagers are now silent. They look at this broad-shouldered black man in his wheel­chair, his head and beard close-shaven, a gold ring in his ear. His hushed° words settle among them like gentle drops of cleansing rain. “What are you doing? Where are you going?” he asks them. “Think about it. Think about me.”

Joe Davis is the coolest fifty-one-year-old you’ve ever seen.


After working as a therapist at John F. Kennedy Mental Health Center in Philadelphia, Joe spent almost twenty years as the coordinator of the “Think First” program at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital. Through “Think First,” he was able to visit countless facilities where at-risk kids might be.

Before leaving any such gathering, Joe would use his uncanny ability to zero in on a kid in special need of his message. He would slip his card into that boy’s or girl’s hand, saying, “I care. Call me.”

They did call him. And he was never too busy to listen. “Terri,” he would tell his loving wife, when another middle-of-the-night phone call came from a stranger who had heard Joe speak, “I would meet a kid in a phone booth if I thought I could help.”

Joe had the biggest heart in the world, but his battered body finally gave out. After two years of declining health, he passed away on August 15, 2015. He was three days short of his 60th birthday.

The more than 500 people who attended his funeral were black, white, and brown. They were Christians, Jews, Muslims, and nonbelievers. Some had dropped out of high school; others had Ivy League degrees. Some had done time in prison. Some worked in law enforcement.

All they had in common was that each had been touched by the miracle that was Joe’s life. Each of them had experienced his ability to look past a person’s exterior to something more important. When Joe met a person, he didn’t see “troubled kid” or “ex convict” or “addict.” He saw people as we all yearn to be seen – imperfect, struggling, but worthy of love. Because they felt that nonjudgmental love, people responded to Joe by wanting to be their best selves. They wanted to be worthy of Joe.

To the end, Joe Davis was a cool man.


  1. Use context clues to help you decide on the best definition for each italicized word. Then, in the space provided, write the letter of your choice.

_____ 1. In the sentence below, the word restored (rµ-stôrd') means

a. held back.

b. punished.

c. brought back.

d. paid.

“Officially he was being ‘rehabilitated’—restored to a productive life.” (Paragraph 10)

_____ 2. In the sentence below, the word accelerated (√k-sƒl'®-rΩ'td) means

a. increased.

b. grew less serious.

c. disappeared.

d. helped.

“The money came in fast, and his own drug use had accelerated even faster.” (Paragraph 11)

_____ 3. In the sentence below, the word ghastly (g√st'l∂) means

a. quite small.

b. very unpleasant.

c. caused by a gun.

d. illegal.

“ . . . he spent six months on his stomach while the ghastly wound slowly healed.” (Paragraph 12)

_____ 4. In the sentences below, the word notion (n˚'sh®n) means

a. idea.

b. joke.

c. answer.

d. cause.

“When his parents took him in, Joe did a little selling from their house, trying to keep it low-key, out of sight, so they wouldn’t notice. He laughs at that notion today. ‘I thought I could control junkies . . . ’” (Paragraph 13)

_____ 5. In the sentence below, the word immersed (µ-mûrst') means

a. totally ignored.

b. greatly angered.

c. deeply involved.

d. often harmed.

“For six weeks, he immersed himself in discussions, tests, and exercises to help him determine the kind of work he might be suited for.” (Paragraph 20)

  1. Below are words, or forms of words, from “Words to Watch.” Write in the one that best completes each sentence. Then write the letter of that word in the space provided.

a. encountered b. hushed c. option

d. rehabilitated e. unruly

_____ 6. Mr. Barris is the meanest-looking man I’ve ever ________________—his frown could freeze chili peppers.

_____ 7. Aunt Sarah ___________________ the children when their loud play made it hard for her to follow the soap opera.

_____ 8. His dad gave Carlos the ___________________ of working part-time in his store as a way of paying some of his college expenses.

_____ 9. The audience grew ___________________ after it was announced that the singer they had come to see had been delayed in traffic.

_____ 10. You’d never know it to look at him now, but the company president is a ___________________ drug addict.


Central Point and Main Ideas

_____ 1. Which sentence best expresses the central point of the selection?

a. Most people cannot improve their lives after turning to drugs and crime.

b. Joe Davis overcame a life of drugs and crime and a disability to lead a rich, productive life.

c. The rules of Joe Davis’s parents caused him to leave home and continue a life of drugs and crime.

d. Joe Davis’s friends turned away from him once they learned he was no longer a source of drugs.

_____ 2. A main idea may cover more than one paragraph. Which sentence best expresses the main idea of paragraphs 21–23?

a. The first sentence of paragraph 21

b. The second sentence of paragraph 21

c. The first sentence of paragraph 22

d. The first sentence of paragraph 23

_____ 3. Which sentence best expresses the main idea of paragraph 24?

a. It was difficult for Joe to do college work after being out of school for so many years.

b. Lorraine Buchanan encouraged Joe to go to college.

c. Joe overcame a lack of academic preparation and eventually earned two college degrees and a master’s degree.

d. If students would stay in high school and work hard, they would not have to go to the trouble of getting a high-school GED.

Supporting Details

_____ 4. Joe Davis quit high school

a. when he was 14.

b. when he got a good job at a hospital.

c. when he was in the tenth grade.

d. after he was shot.

_____ 5. Joe tried to kill himself by

a. swallowing muscle-relaxant pills.

b. shooting himself.

c. overdosing on heroin.

d. not eating or drinking.

_____ 6. According to the selection, Joe first met his wife

a. in the hospital, where she was a nurse.

b. on a city bus, where they were both passengers.

c. on the job, where she was also a receptionist.

d. at the Community College of Philadelphia, where she was also a student.

_____ 7. Joe decided to stop using drugs

a. when he met his future wife.

b. right after he was shot.

c. when he awoke from a suicide attempt.

d. when he was hired as a receptionist.

Signal Words

_____ 8. The word because in the sentence below shows a relationship of

a. addition.

b. time.

c. contrast.

d. cause and effect.

“‘I was still in school at age 40 because when I was young, I chose the dead-end route many of you are on. . . . ’” (Paragraph 26)


_____ 9. The author implies that

a. Joe became a drug addict because his parents didn’t care what happened to him.

b. Joe tried hard to succeed in high school, but failed.

c. Joe’s parents turned their backs on him after he was shot.

d. Joe was not as “cool” as he thought he was.

_____ 10. We can conclude that

a. even longtime drug addicts like Joe can be rehabilitated.

b. some drug addicts can never be rehabilitated.

c. it’s nearly impossible to go back to school after seventeen years.

d. there are few resources available for people who are recovering from addiction.


Following is an outline showing major events in Joe Davis’s life. Complete the outline by filling in the missing events, which are scrambled in the list below.

• Joe takes a job as a receptionist.

• Joe gets shot, which paralyzes him from the chest down.

• Joe starts selling drugs.

• Joe earns a college degree.

Central point: From a life of drugs and crime, Joe Davis turned his life around in several positive ways.

1. Joe leaves school.

2. ____________________________________________________________

3. ____________________________________________________________

4. Joe tries to commit suicide.

5. Joe gives up drugs and goes into a vocational rehabilitation program.

6. ____________________________________________________________

7. Joe gets married.

8. ____________________________________________________________

9. Joe earns a master’s degree in social work.

10. Joe speaks to young people, using his experiences to inspire them to improve their lives.

About the Author

Beth Johnson

Since 1988 Beth Johnson has been an associate editor for Townsend Press, an educational publisher in New Jersey. She has published more than a dozen books of profiles about and for “people who have struggled with a variety of life obstacles,” in addition to books in “The King School Series” for reading instruction in Grades K – 2. She earned a B.A. in English and Communication from Goshen College in 1977 and an MS in literacy communication from Syracuse University in 1979. She lives in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, with her husband Bob Anderson.