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Chester County Press

Joe Harkins: The memoirs of a life well lived

12/07/2022 10:37AM ● By Richard Gaw

Photo by Richard L. Gaw         Joe Harkins of Crosslands recently celebrated his 95th birthday on Dec. 5 with his daughters Jeannie and Pat, his son-in-law Bill Astifan, his grandson John Prisco and several other family members.

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

Upon arriving at the Firbank Central residence of Joseph Aloysius Cornelius “Joe” Harkins at the Crosslands Senior Living Community in Kennett Square, it is immediately apparent that its walls and shelves serve as a tour guide of accomplishments, family and history.

There are framed photographs of his time in the U.S. Army prior to the start of the Korean Conflict and mounted medals from his service. There are two framed mementos of his two hole-in-ones, the last from 2005, when he was 78 years old. There are the captured moments of his 65-year marriage to his wife Jeanne, photos of his family, and more knick-knacks related to the University of Notre Dame – where he earned a degree – than one can count. (To this day, his children Jeannie, Judy, Pat and Kathleen and their children know all of the words to the school’s famous fight song.)

Together, and on the occasion of Harkins’ 95th birthday on December 5, they form the memoirs of a life well lived.

Born and raised in Rochester, N.Y. to a strict Roman Catholic family, Harkins moved to Westchester County as a teenager where he became the class valedictorian in his only year at Iona Prep. In the Harkins’ family, three things were stressed above all else: church, education and country. They followed him to Notre Dame in 1945 but after only one year in South Bend, he enlisted in the U.S. Army as part of the United States’ War of Occupation in Korea. After 18 months of service, Harkins returned to Notre Dame, where he received a degree in chemical engineering in 1950, graduating Magna Cum Laude.

After college, Harkins took a job in the research lab at General Foods in New Jersey, while also attending law school at St. John’s University.

“At that time, I decided I wanted to become a patent lawyer that came out my experience at General Foods,” he said. “I became involved in patent litigation for the company, and I thought, ‘The field of patent litigation looks like a nice career.’”

During his time at General Foods, he met Jeanne Rohel, who was secretary to the head of the research center.

“Jeanne’s desk was right outside of my office, so every time I walked in or walked out, I saw her,” he said. “I talked to her. I asked her out, and married her.”

“I was born in a log cabin in Lake Erskine, New Jersey,” said first-born daughter Jeannie, who would be followed by her sisters Judy, Pat and Kathy. “Dad took my mother from Union City to this summer retreat in the middle of nowhere.”

After the Harkins family left the log cabin, they settled in Wayne, N.J., where Harkins career blossomed. After leaving General Foods, he joined Congoleum-Nairn – an internationally-known leader in the flooring industry -- as its patent lawyer, where he was responsible for facilitating nearly 100 company patents. Harkins was also instrumental in the invention and development of Congoleum Cushion Flooring.

“At one point, the president of the company asked me if I would change course and provide some assistance to others in the company at our Marcus Hook plant,” he said. “At that time, the flooring industry was in trouble. The popularity of linoleum was dying and vinyl was coming in. The Marcus Hook plant made a product that didn’t sell very well, so we conceived the idea of making three-dimensional flooring, with a layer of cushion.

“With the help of our chemist, I figured out a way to develop it and lo and behold, the concept worked. The process is still used throughout the industry and throughout the world.”

‘Who can’t fall in love with a leprechaun?’

The mementos on his walls and shelves may tell the story of a 95-year-old life, but for Joe Harkins, his life is still filled with reflection, devotion – and surprises. As his birthday neared, his daughter Pat, a physician in developmental pediatrics, made a surprise visit to him from San Antonio, Texas. She recalled how her father inspired his children to pursue their own direction and individual curiosities.

“He would take us to the zoo a lot, as well as the Museum of Natural History in New York,” she said. “During one of the early Mercury space missions, he pulled me near the television and said, ‘That’s the United States and they’re going into space.’

“He always supported me, and never told me to do anything different than what I set out to do. He told us not only to follow our dreams, but to learn along the way.”

Jeannie, a long-time elementary school teacher who lives with her husband Bill Astifan and family in Chadds Ford, said her father gave her a strong religious foundation.

“While it wasn’t always apparent in me, I am very grateful to him for that aspect of how we were all raised,” she said. 

When Astifan first met his future father-in-law, his nerves nearly overtook him, but he quickly came to find the kindness in him.

“Who can’t fall in love with a leprechaun?” he said. “I had total respect for him from day one, and it has stayed with me.”

It is largely agreed by those who subscribe to college traditions that Notre Dame’s slogan “God, Country and Notre Dame” is one of the most famous and frequently quoted of its kind. In order to best define what has been the most important components of his life, Jeannie offered one additional word.

“I always think it should be – at least for my father – God, family, country and Notre Dame,” she said. “That says everything about who my father has been.”

In the quiet moments he has at Crosslands, particularly when he’s not entertaining family and friends, Harkins said that he reflects often on those whose lives have intersected his – Jeanne (who died one day before the couple’s 65th wedding anniversary), his children and eight grandchildren, the many working associates he developed, and the moments they made.

“Live this life to prepare yourself for the next life,” he offered.There is a next life, there is a church, and Jesus Christ was born, lived and taught. We are responsible to react to that throughout all of our lives, which Ive tried to do and then pass that onto my children and their children in the hopes that they do the same all of their lives.

As you get older, you get nearer to the end of this life, and then you die, but I don’t mind dying. So during this period, I think a lot about what I have done in my life, say the Rosary and be thankful for my many blessings.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].