Eckels ‘can turn a dull moment into a wonderful day’
Person of the Year dedicated to serving the community
The Blair County community benefits tremendously from the service of its own residents, and in the Eckels family, serving the community is a habit that has become a legacy.
Joseph Eckels was recognized for his service at the Blair Bedford Central Labor Council’s 39th Annual Person of the Year Awards Dinner on Thursday at the Bavarian Hall.
Eckels, who has been a union member for 50 years, was named the 2019 Person of the Year.
“It’s very humbling,” Eckels said. “When you do the things I’ve been involved in, you don’t usually get an award like this. I really appreciate this, but I don’t do it for the award.”
A 1964 graduate of Altoona Area High School, Eckels went on to attend college in Indiana and served his country in the United States Air Force. Having studied as a Russian linguist, he was stationed overseas from 1966-68 in West Berlin at the Tempelhof Airport during the Cold War.
“It really started out for him in the service,” Heather Eckels, Joe’s daughter, said. “I think that’s the proudest moment in his life.”
His military service impacted him immensely and set him on a path of lifelong service, whether it be to his country or to his own community.
In addition to the military, Eckels has been greatly influenced by St. Mary’s Church, of which he has been a member for many years.
Heather said faith was something that always came first in their family, and for Joe, his volunteering began with the church.
He has served as a lector, Eucharistic minister, member of the RICA team and president of the Parish Financial Council, among other roles.
Above all, Eckels said the aspect of his life that makes him the proudest is his family. He was married to the late Jane (Kimmen) Eckels, and together they had five children: Joey, Pam (Davis), Tommy, Robyn (DiSabato) and Heather.
When his children became active in sports, Eckels’ involvement in the community continued to increase.
He began volunteering at the East End Little League concession stand, and he later went on to become the league president, a role that he held even after his kids no longer played.
When his children reached high school and were involved in athletics and the music department, Eckels became active in the Big A Booster Club. He is now serving in his 28th year as the club’s president, a role that has become his legacy.
“I’m a big sports fan,” Eckels said. “That’s how I got involved in the Big A Booster Club. My kids were playing sports, and I would see the need. Any money we could raise, we could help a team.”
Those who work closely with Eckels at the Big A Boosters admire his dedication to all that he does.
“There wouldn’t be a Big A without Joe,” Heidi McCorkle said. “He makes sure that the stands are manned and that they’re selling 50/50 at every game. If he can’t be there, which is rare, he makes sure someone else is.”
Eckels’ efforts through the Big A have also ensured that Altoona students have the opportunity to receive scholarship money every year.
“Without him, there wouldn’t be the scholarships, and a lot of kids depend on those scholarships,” Susan Bettwy said.
Even more than they appreciate the work he puts into the Big A, however, those who work alongside Eckels are drawn to his personality.
“He’s just a fun person,” McCorkle said. “Whether it’s with adults or students, he can turn a dull moment into a wonderful day.”
Eckels’ work with students has certainly not gone unnoticed. For the past 32 years, he has worked as a bus driver for the Altoona Area School District, interacting with dozens of students each day.
He was even affectionately nicknamed “Spongebob,” a name by which even students who have long since graduated refer to him.
Prior to becoming a bus driver for the school district, Eckels worked at Butterick Dress Patterns beginning in 1969, which is when he officially became a union member, and he has instilled the union values in his family, in addition to the importance of service.
“That’s the beauty of it — he was the model and we followed in his footsteps,” Heather said. “As children, we mimicked what we saw, and that was that service, without a doubt, was the top priority in our family.”
Heather also gives credit to her mother, Jane, and the role that she played in raising the family, something that Joe also addressed in his acceptance speech at the awards dinner.
“If you think about all the time and effort he has given to society and to our community, he couldn’t have done it without my mother,” Heather said.