How Joe Hubbard popped the question after 40 years
Joe Hubbard never had time to get married. The 75-year-old Belleville man was too busy helping poor, sick, elderly and homeless people through Catholic organizations in St. Clair County.
Julie Llamas, his lady friend for more than 40 years, didn't pester him about it because she was pretty swamped herself, taking care of her ill mother, an orphaned niece and other family.
"I didn't think he would ever marry me," said Julie, 79. "We were close, and I loved him, and he loved me, but we were just satisfied with the way things were."
That was until May 15, when Joe finally popped the question.
The couple was attending Mass at Orr-Weathers public-housing complex in East St. Louis. The congregation was singing the hymn "I Have Loved You."
"We were about halfway through Mass, and he turns around and looks at me and says, 'You want to get married?'" Julie said. "And I just looked at him and laughed and said, 'Yeah.'"
They were planning a small, private affair until word of their engagement reached the community. Friends and family thought they deserved a full-blown wedding and reception.
Joe's longtime co-worker, Pat Hogrebe, 61, of Millstadt, switched hats, going from executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Belleville Council to wedding planner.
"They've waited a long time for this," she said. "It's just a special day for them. It's like a fairytale, a dream come true."
Could I have this dance?
Nearly 200 people gathered at St. Henry's Catholic Church in Belleville on Friday night to watch Joe and Julie say "I do." The Rev. Kenneth York officiated.
The couple opted not to climb to the altar to avoid risk of falling. Julie uses a walker, and Joe isn't as steady as he used to be. She wore a white crocheted top and slacks, and he wore a black suit with a lilac shirt and tie.
"(Their path to marriage has) been a lifelong venture," York said, prompting giggles from the pews.
Gerry Hasenstab, who replaced Joe as executive director of Catholic Urban Programs when Joe retired in 2013, and his wife, Barb Hasenstab, served as best man and matron of honor.
The ceremony was followed by a reception with a three-tier wedding cake, pink and lilac floral centerpieces, D.J. music, champagne toasts and a bouquet toss.
"I told Joe he better not smash (cake) in my face like the young people do," Julie said, and he followed her orders.
The couple danced to the Anne Murray song "Could I Have This Dance" while people crowded around for photos as if they were celebrities.
Wedding guests included Belleville mayor Mark Eckert, St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, County Clerk Tom Holbrook and retired judges Milton Wharton and Lloyd Cueto.
"Joe is one of my best friends," Eckert said. "We talk once or twice a day. He has done so much for me over the years. He's been a great mentor."
Working in the trenches
Joe grew up in East St. Louis. He quit college after his father's death and got a job with the local levy district to support his mother and younger brothers.
But Joe found his real calling as a volunteer for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
"I wanted to stay in charity work, so Bishop (Albert) Zuroweste offered me a job, and I started Catholic Urban Programs in 1973," he said. "It was a one-person office."
Over the years, the agency grew, and so did Joe's reputation.
He worked in the trenches, helping single mothers get electricity turned back on, sitting up all night with people dying in hospitals, taking food to shut-ins and even digging graves for families who couldn't afford funeral expenses.
"I was guardian or power of attorney for several hundred people," he said. "Mostly people who didn't have any family or any funds."
Joe spent 40 years with Catholic Urban Programs before retirement. He still volunteers and still serves as director of Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Belleville.
Joe, who also is a former Belleville Township trustee, has received dozens of awards. Most are stored in a closet at home because he's too humble to display them.
"People call him a living saint," said York, 68, who met Joe when York was a seminary student. "He has spent his life ministering to other people. That's his vocation, and he's very dedicated to it."
Couple met in church
Beyond community service, Joe cared for his mother and two brothers, who lived with him when their health was failing. Caretaking was something he had in common with Julie.
They had met as teenagers while attending Holy Angels Catholic Church in East St. Louis.
"He'd collect the money, and to get my attention, he'd hit me in the head with the collection basket," Julie said.
The friends got reacquainted in their 30s, when Julie worked in administration at Notre Dame nursing home (now Willowcreek) in Belleville. Joe stopped in regularly to visit residents.
In 1977, Julie invited him to the facility's annual Christmas party.
"If I hadn't asked him, I don't think he would've asked me," she said. "I think he was too bashful."
Joe and Julie went out only once or twice a month until his mother, Olga, and her mother, Florence, died in the 1990s. That's when their friendship evolved into romance.
The next big step came in 2012, when thieves broke into Julie's mobile home in O'Fallon and stole her jewelry. She was afraid to stay alone, so her nieces invited her to move in with them.
"Joe said, 'That's silly. They'd have to make room for you, and I've got this three-bedroom house, and I'm not home during the day. It doesn't make sense to heat it all day with nobody there,'" Julie said.
Taking care of each other
The timing was perfect for Joe and Julie to become housemates. In the past five years, she has dealt with respiratory issues and a leg problem that required surgery. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease on top of his diabetes.
They've been able to take care of each other but also spend more time going to movies, eating out with friends and cooking together at home.
"I wanted to get married," Julie said. "I told him, 'I won't pressure you.' But if I got sick, I wanted him to marry me on my death bed. I didn't want to go to heaven not being married."
Julie's niece, Sandy Lambert, has been calling Hubbard "Uncle Joe" for years. He walked her down the aisle at her wedding in lieu of her late father.
Lambert, 48, of Mascoutah, cried tears of joy when the couple announced they were engaged.
"Finally, after all these years, they're able to do something for themselves," she said. "Their lives have always been about everyone else."
Joe and Julie are thinking about taking a trip to Pere Marquette State Park Lodge near Grafton for their honeymoon.
Joe smiles when asked what caused him to end decades of bachelorhood and blurt out his proposal during Mass that day. It happened to be a friend's birthday. He was thinking that life is short and that marriage is a gift from God.
"I'm getting old," he said. "And when you start getting old, you realize you're going to die, and you want to enjoy a little bit of what God gives us to enjoy."