Human Interest

In Village of Oak Creek resident Joe Proulx’s book, “Journeys with Jerry,” longtime comedian Jerry Lewis’ love for maritime life is shadowed only by his constant use of laughter.

Joe’s wife Shirley Proulx, who helped pen the book, said there were many highlights during their life and tried to pick the most interesting for the book.

“It’s supposed to be this feel-good kind of thing,” she said. “Lewis was a genius of comedy and you can see that throughout the relationship in all kinds of things.”

Joe Proulx, from San Diego, became the captain and caretaker of Lewis’ yachts. The first two, at 41 and 65 feet, were both named the Pussycat, and Proulx had been working on the smaller for a while at the marina when one day, Lewis approached him with a job offer to work full-time exclusively for him.

Proulx didn’t hesitate to accept.

In the early days, Lewis and Proulx played host to many celebrities and even a few presidents on the boat, with Proulx and Lewis becoming fast friends. The two had similar family lives and came together on social occasions often.

Then in July 1966, the 65-foot cabin cruiser Pussycat sank of the California coast.

Lewis was on board with Proulx, returning from one of Lewis’ engagements in San Francisco. The weather was rough and fog limited visibility. The boat sprung a plank, according to a story in The San Diego Union, and began taking on water. Proulx wrote that he tried to stuff a mattress under the engines, where the water was coming in, but it had little effect. He called the Coast Guard, but the aircraft was unable to spot them in the fog.

Eventually, the two, along with three other crew members, were forced to abandon ship. Proulx dropped anchor and the five of them got into the life raft, nearly making it to shore before being overturned by the surf.

Proulx managed to get a few toys he had bought for his child off the boat, but when Lewis asked him if he had gotten his briefcase, Proulx said he hadn’t seen it. Apparently, there was a few thousand dollars and some jewlery in it. Proulx doesn’t know if any diver has since recovered the sunken treasure.

The boat was not held by its anchor and crashed ashore, a total loss.

It didn’t keep Lewis or his captain off the water, though. Lewis would go on to buy the Pussycat Too and Sam’s Place, both of which Proulx worked on and captained.

The transition from employee to family friends occurs rapidly, as pages shift from boating logs to something more akin to a family photo album. Birthdays come and go, children are born and the two seem ever-present in each other’s milestones. Proulx still had to work, though. But the instructions provided by Lewis were often generous and comical. Proulx had even kept some of the memos Lewis had left him:

“Joe, the hat is yours! Enjoy. — JL”

“Joe, Re: Ease Up. Starboard two windows in salon — help!”

And in an inter-office communication:

“41. Now that you’ve read the aforgoing [sic] ... take a nap and buy a copy of ‘War and Peace’— you’ll get through that sooner.”

“If you read Jerry’s instructions in the book about what he wanted done while he was gone ... you’ll see a line of comedy throughout. He just lived it,” Shirley Proulx said. “It was an interesting and unusual situation.”

Of course, the book has its share of memories from the famous Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon days. Both Shirley and Joe were able to get a behind-the-scenes look at what went on after being invited to attend several. Snapshots capture Lewis working with Charo and overseeing the band as it warmed up. Proulx wrote that the experience was like being “visiting royalty.”

During the 1997 telethon, Proulx recalled how the news of Princess Diana of Britain dying in a crash presented a dramatic course shift for the show, which was airing at the moment.

Last-minute changes went smoothly, as Proulx wrote, even though Lewis had known Diana.

Joe Proulx is 92 now. He’s done working on the boats, but still works on scale models. Fourteen years ago, he and Shirley left the Pacific coast — where housing prices were skyrocketing, Shirley Proulx said — and came to the VOC, where, like so many neighbors, they had previously vacationed. Without endless water, Joe Proulx has also taken to the skies with remote airplanes.

“It’s a joy just to live here, I think,” Shirley said.

The book is currently being circulated through friends of the Proulxs. Based on their feedback, it could become available soon, though Shirley Proulx said they didn’t know what route the couple would take on printing it —traditional or self-published. This is the first book the two have worked on.


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