‘Life’s too short to be unhappy’

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Joe Arts stands in his garage between the 1966 Dodge Dart and 1966 Dodge pickup that he swore he would never sell, and instead gave to people he knew would value and care for them. (Ben Kibbey/The Western News)

Joe Arts has built a life around making people happy ó and his cars ó but mostly people.

"Iíve always tried to, well, never miss an opportunity to have a good time. And if Iím having a good time, then the people around me are more likely to be having a good time," he said. "You know, it just kind of spreads."

That didnít change after Arts was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this spring and told he had months left to live.

"Iím not going to sit here feeling sorry for myself and ĎOh, poor me,í" he said. "Iím going to go out having just as much fun as I possibly can. Lifeís too short to be unhappy."

Kelly Matteson, a close friend with Arts for the past six years, said his kindness, honesty and humor drew her to him.

"He never leaves a place without people smiling," she said.

Even when she is at her lowest, Artsí quick wit never fails to cheer her, Matteson said.

"Itís not obscene, thereís nothing like that," she said. "Itís almost a little bit dark, but not dark."

As an example, she got Arts to share his plans for his burial.

Arts said he wants to be cremated, and to have his remains returned to the property outside Helena where he grew up in a cabin without plumbing. But he has a concern with that arrangement.

"If they put you on top of the ground, youíre going to wash away with the rain and the snow," he said.

So, he has another idea, involving the "pink palace" ó the name his family gave to the old outhouse.

"If they dump you down a six foot hole in an outhouse, youíre going to be there for a while," Arts said. "When I tell people this is what I want to do, theyíre horrified, but usually I can wear Ďem down."

"Joe always finds something to be happy about," Matteson said.

"Itís been a perfect life," Arts said. "Iíve seen most of the places I want to see, and built most of the cars I wanted to build."

The teacher

In 1964, Arts joined the Navy and served a six-year enlistment as a radioman in San Diego and Hawaii.

His father, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, swore him in, following a family tradition of military service as a first step into adulthood.

He went to the University of Montana in Missoula after he got out. He hadnít planned on becoming a teacher, he said, yet after taking a few education courses he found he liked working with children.

"My whole thing was, you find at least one thing about every kid that you like, and then you dwell on that when youíre dealing with them ó to make them feel comfortable and feel like you wanted them there," Arts said. "And then if you wanted them there, they want to be there."

Arts started in Troy teaching fourth grade in 1973, then after ten years moved to third grade for the next 20. He spent his final three years teaching fifth grade before retiring in 2006.

He enjoys teaching that grade range, he said, because the children are reaching an age when you can talk to them almost like adults.

"You talk to them like you would another human being," he said. "Youíve got to have respect for your kids also, and when you had that, they responded to that, too."

Arts is known for the things he brought to the classroom, from spiders, to sending students down to the corner to fetch bags of candy on Fridays, to pizza with octopus on it.

But as much as he values making people happy, there was more to things such as the pizza than just having fun.

"Iíd tell them, ĎTry a piece. If you like it, eat it. If you donít like it, throw it in the wastebasket, but at least try," he said. "You can always spit it out if you donít like it, be it food or be it life or whatever. I told them if you donít try, youíll never know."

Arts often runs into adults around Troy who were once the children he taught. Seeing their success still brings him happiness and makes him proud, he said.

But his definition of success is not about reaching lofty heights.

"I told Ďem, to be a success, you donít have to be president or a CEO," he said. "Whatever you choose to do, you do it well. If youíre a stocker in the grocery store, or working in the deli, if you do it well, and youíre raising a family, youíre a success."

Council member

Though Arts retired from teaching in 2006, he wasnít finished serving his community.

About six years ago, he decided to run for Troy City Council.

"The old council was sort of mean spirited, in my estimation," he said.

Both Arts and Crystal Denton were elected, and things began to turn around, Arts said. By the time he resigned from the council at the end of May, citing his health, things were very different.

"WeĎve got a good council. We can fight tooth and nails, and then go out and have a soda afterward or whatever," he said.

Denton said she remembers the chaos and disagreement when they were first elected. Artsí approach to conflict helped to make it better.

"He is open to discussions. Heís open to everybodyís opinions, but when he felt something was right, he just went with it," she said.

Arts doesnít speak much, but when he feels something needs to be said, he does not hesitate, she said.

His reputation from his teaching career helped at times, Arts said. As a teacher, he gave weekly report cards to students so they always knew where they stood.

"I told them, I didnít give them grades, they earned them," he said. "I wanted them to know I was always fair."

That fairness is something Arts said he strived for on the council as well.

"I donít have an opinion thatís set in stone," he said.

Council member Shawna Kelsey said she remembers Arts as a fun and colorful teacher, and now respects him as a colleague as well.

"Itís really nice to know him as an adult," she said. "He definitely has a passion for Troy, and he is passionate for where he wants to see Troy go."

Seeing that care for the community is inspiring, she said.

Troy Mayor Dallas Carr served with Arts for about four years as a council member. Arts was good at taking in all points of view, Carr said.

"He didnít say a heck of a lot, but he listened a lot," he said. "If Joe believed it, by God, he stuck to it."

And his service is something Arts did for the sake of the town, Carr said. When Carr put forward the idea of paying council members, Arts threatened to step down if that ever happened.

Council member Chuck Ekstedt said he has enjoyed working with Arts, and that discussions with him were part of what guided him to serving on the council.

"Heís always truthful about how he feels, and heís going to say what he feels," Ekstedt said. Yet, he doesnít remember ever seeing Arts get angry when doing so.

Arts tries to figure out the best option for the community, not simply the most popular one, he said.

By example

Arts said he never felt a need to start a family of his own, but that doesnít mean he didnít have a family.

"My kids at school were also my family," he said.

"He has given his whole life to this town and this area," Matteson said.

Troy has always felt like home to Arts, he said.

"I couldnít imagine living or teaching or anything else away from Troy," he said. "Itís just one of those things, you hit your niche, and you know it."

When they are out around town, Arts will remember not just his students, but the things they wanted to accomplish and what they have done, Matteson said.

Artsí goal was to see his students grow up well and establish themselves, desires that gave him an added incentive to live his own life well, he said.

"Iíve never felt it would be right for me to be seen drunk in public or anything, because that wouldnít be fair to the kids," he said. "So, I can safely say that none of Ďem have ever seen me staggering down the street or face down in the gutter."

"Or even take a drink," Matteson said.

"You owe it to your kids. If I say, do this, I should be doing the same thing," he said.

Itís an example that Matteson has valued firsthand, she said. Her 23-year-old son, Quinn Cossey, looks up to Arts, and she values the pattern she sees Quinn following out of that admiration, including pursuing teaching in college.

The cars

Leading a good example isnít all that has kept Arts on the straight and narrow, he said.

"All my life, I never smoked and never drank because I needed the money for the cars," he said.

He likes to build, rebuild and drive his cars, from a 1948 Anglia to a 1966 Dodge Dart, Arts said. It was his other passion outside of teaching.

"I like to get them built Ďtil I figure theyíre finished, as much as an old car is ever finished," he said. "I like to build them, then I like to drive them."

Arts gets attached to his cars, and hates to get rid of them, though he did sell the Anglia about 2012 after it got difficult to get in and out of it, he said.

"Crawling in and out of the roll cage and looking around the supercharger ó after a while it wasnít fun," he said.

Arts swore heíd never sell his last two cars ó the Dart and a 1966 Dodge pickup, he said. "And I havenít. I gave Ďem away."

One he is giving to Bob Welch, who founded the Troy Town Cruisers car club. The other is going to Troy Police Chief Katie Davis and her family.

Davis grew up building classic cars with her dad, she said. When she met her husband, he told her about his former third-grade teacher and the Anglia.

One July 4th when visiting Troy, Davis met Arts, and the two have been friends ever since.

"Heís just a super nice guy," Davis said. "You donít meet people like Joe every day."

Matteson said Davis and Arts get along so well in part because they share a sense of humor.

"You canít offend the man, and he laughs with the best of them," Davis said.

He once bought Davisí children propeller hats, and then wore one himself through an entire car club meeting.

When Davis tried to tease Arts ó who often ate food she found disgusting ó by buying him candy-covered crickets, he ate them without hesitation, she said. Then he stuck out his tongue to show her.

"Heís always good for a joke," she said. "If you ever have the opportunity to go out to dinner with him, just do it, because youíll laugh the entire time."

Both Davis and her dad became friends with Arts through cars, Davis said.

"He was alive during quite possibly the coolest generation ever," she said. "Itís really neat to go to a car show with someone who says, ĎOh, I had one of those, and my friend had one of those.í"

Talking cars with Arts was like getting to live that history vicariously, Davis said.

For Arts, working on the cars also was a chance to take a trip through time, she said. Some of the cars he fixed up over the years were the same vehicles he had when he was younger.

Davis struggled with how to feel when Arts told her he wanted her family to have his car.

"Itís a super generous gift, but it comes at a pretty steep price," she said. "Iíd rather have Joe."

When she told him that, he responded that heíd rather have the car than "a Joe," she said.

"Itís really an honor, and itís touching, but at the same time it feels pretty awful, just because, we wonít have Joe anymore," she said. "I would rather have Joe forever."

Spread the happiness

Shortly after Matteson met Arts, her plans for a trip to California were thrown off when her car for the trip fell through, she said. Arts insisted she take his Jeep.

She was thrown off, by that remarkable show of kindness, she said. But now she sees it as just part of who he is.

After Arts was diagnosed, he began giving away many of his valued "trinkets," Matteson said.

"The things that are most important, your personal things, nobody else cares about," Arts said. "And theyíll be on the 25 cent table or the garbage."

So, instead, he has spent time deciding what things people he knows will most value and see meaning in, and giving those things to them, he said.

When the right person is matched with the right treasure, their eyes light up from the connection, Matteson said. "That piece will be kept," she said. "That piece is a part of Joe."

His giving nature also shows up at Halloween, when Matteson said she struggles to keep the bowls full for him as he hands out candy to adults and children alike.

"If the parents stop at the fence, Iíll run out and give them candy, too," Arts said.

And there is no two- piece limit with Arts. He only gives candy by the handful, he said.

"You know, thatís something theyíll remember too, is the old fart with the candy dish," he said.

Katie Reid and Jenelle Clark work at Steinís in the deli, another place Arts likes to give out candy.

"I buy the girls in the deli and I buy all the checkers candy bars, and my line when I do that is, ĎHey little girl, would you like some candy?í" Arts said.

Matteson said that the results can be additionally entertaining if someone from out of town is in the line, just seeing the looks on their faces.

But for Reid, Clark and the others, itís all good fun, they said.

Arts likes to add some humor to it, intentionally picking candy names, such as Dum-Dums, as a tease, or Snickers to give them a smile, they said.

As past students, itís no surprise to them that Arts has been nominated three times for an American Teacher Award, even though the nominating students have to be in high school, and therefore years past their time in his classroom.

They still remember him letting them get up to sharpen a pencil more often than other teachers would, and making jokes to lighten the mood in class.

"He just had a kind, soft personality," Clark said.

"And he was always there," Reid said. "Even as an adult, you could always go to him."

But, he commanded respect as well, they said. All it would take is him raising an eyebrow for them to know he was serious and that it was time to pay attention.

Clark said they know they will always be Artsí kids, "And we do feel like it."

Reid and Clark were two of the students Arts would send to get candy for the class. One recent day they decided to make him a candy bouquet, with old car pictures decorating a pot filled with candy.

The two went over on their lunch break to give the bouquet to him, and found out something he had never told them before: the man who gives everyone else candy is diabetic.

As mothers themselves, the two agreed they wish there were more teachers like Arts, and ó in part because he gave them such stockpiles ó theyíve found they like to give candy away to others, too.

But candies arenít the only sweets he gives away. Davis said Arts has often dropped donuts off at the Troy emergency dispatch.

"I think his biggest goal is just to make sure everyone smiles," Davis said.

Clark said everyone fills their life with happiness in their own way. Artsí happiness appears to come from the happiness he gives to others.

"Itís been a good life, but itís been a good life because you make yourself happy," Arts said. "You can make yourself unhappy or miserable. Iíd rather be happy ó possibly Dopey."

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