Remembering Papa Joe: Beloved Ice Cream Man Dies

For Papa Joe, it was about a lot more than ice cream.

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"Icon," "community staple," and "Santa Claus of the summer," are all titles that people gave to Joe Barbato, but the one he wore with most pride was simply, "Papa Joe".

"Every town hopefully has someone like Papa Joe, who just makes the town nicer," said State Rep. Noreen Kokoruda.

After more than 25 years of serving up ice cream in the Town of Madison, Papa Joe Barbato died Tuesday at the age of 89.

"Joe Barbato found his calling as Madison’s Good Humor Man, spending 25 years charming his way into the hearts of our friends and neighbors," his family wrote on his Facebook fan page. "The motivation behind his work was simple: as he always said, “I do it because I love the kids.” 

Barbato grew up in New Haven and was a star athlete. He was named to all-state teams in basketball and baseball at Hillhouse High School and would later be inducted into the Hillhouse Sports Hall of Fame. Barbato went on to play second base for the Detroit Tigers' AAA affiliate.

Barbato would then go on to serve in the army before settling down and spending more than two decades in the insurance business.

It was upon his retirement, at the age of 62, that Barbato had a bright idea. He went to his children and told them he wanted to buy an ice cream truck. He was going to be Madison's Good Humor Ice Cream man.

"I thought he was crazy," said Andrea Panullo, laughing.

"We tried to talk him out of it, to no avail," Panullo's sister, Linsley weighed in. "It was the best decision he ever made."

Barbato's three children, Andrea, Linsley and his son Joseph, all agree it was their dad's favorite job and it was about a lot more than serving ice cream.

"He was a man that showed real love," said Panullo.

Mike Shirley, John-Michael and Brett Glaser all are in their thirties now, but they stood outside the old Academy School in Madison Thursday, recollecting where Papa Joe used to park his truck when they were in third grade.

They said whenever they heard the music they would go running.

"The ice cream was great, but getting time with Papa Joe was the most special," said Shirley.

Glaser said he remembers seeing Papa Joe at little league games. He said even though there was always a gaggle of kids around the vintage 1969 truck, Papa Joe made each kid feel like it was just the two of them, talking about a serious business deal.

"I hope we can make sure his legacy lives on," said Glaser.

John-Michael said he remembers that Papa Joe would always joke with the kids while counting their change saying, "$1,000, $2,000," making them feel like they were rich.

"He was a really important, sort of like, grandfather to the whole town," said Michael.

Papa Joe was also famous for quizzing the students when they came out of Academy School. Whoever could answer his question correctly got free ice cream.

Shirley said he will never forget the day that he identified the state capital of California and got a free ice cream bar in return.

"He gave away a lot of free ice cream," said Joseph Barbato, Papa Joe's son. "I don't know if I would have run my business like him."

In 2017, Papa Joe retired from the ice cream business and sold his truck. State Rep. Kokoruda obtained a state proclamation, officially declaring it "Papa Joe Day."

"He was that big of a deal," said Glaser.

Since Papa Joe's passing earlier this week, his family has received an outpouring of messages, mostly from strangers.

"He was our father and we were proud and we loved him, but we had no idea how much he was loved by everybody else," said Panullo.

They said that the messages from people who loved Papa Joe will stay with them forever, almost as long as Papa Joe's legacy is likely to live on.

"Rest in Peace, Poppa Joe," one person wrote to the family on Facebook. "No ice cream will ever taste as good."

"He was just the ice cream man. How many people leave this kind of legacy for driving a Good Humor truck?" said Linsley Barbato, Papa Joe's daughter. "It doesn't matter if you are the CEO of a big company or if you are the Good Humor man, you can make a difference."

The family is hosting a celebration of life for Papa Joe Friday Feb. 28 from 2:30 p.m. until 3:30 p.m. at the North Madison Congregational Church.

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