Around the Island

A brother preserves the memory of one gone too soon

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO | Flags marking ‘Joey’s Mile,’ the last stretch of the Shelter Island 10K, placed by Island school children in memory of Lt. Joseph J. Theinert

Jimbo Theinert was working on the South Ferry when he got the call.

His father told him to get off the boat on the North Haven side, he needed to talk to him. Walking the short distance from the ferry to the car, his first thoughts were that his grandmother had died. But soon his father was telling him the news that had to be delivered in person. His brother was dead.

Lt. Joseph J. Theinert, 24, had been killed by an improvised explosive device in Kandahar, Afghanistan on June 4, 2010, while protecting his men.

The days following were a flurry of preparations. But after the somber procession in the rain during Joey’s final return to the Island, after the wake at Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church, where people stood in line for hours to pay their respects to the Theinert and Kestler families, after the funeral and the burial at OLOI cemetery, Jimbo had to find his way in life without his brother.

What the Theinert and Kestler families went through here has happened more than 2,200 times in big cities and small towns across the country, with that figure representing the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan.

Last week Jimbo (James) talked about his big brother and what he was doing to keep his memory alive.

“He was my best friend,” he said of Joey, a year ahead of him in school, “We shared a bedroom for most of my childhood. Every night after the lights went out, we talked. I told him everything.”

For a year after his death,  “the bubble of Shelter Island propped me up,” he said. But then it “was time to take off the training wheels.” He and his girlfriend, Mary Larsen, traveled cross-country for 10 months.

June 4, he said, will always be a “blacked out date” for his family. They dreaded the first anniversary of his death but they got through it with a big family dinner.

The next year, 2012, the anniversary was the first day of the 7th grade schooner trip. Jimbo decided to chaperone because he remembered how much his brother had liked it. He said it was “an eye-opening” experience for Joey, sailing with kids from Fishers and Block islands; he “stepped out of his shell,” exposed to a world bigger than the Island.

This past June 4, Jimbo, a high school math teacher here, wanted to honor his brother in a different way by combining part of his own healing process with a memorial.

He took time out from his classes to talk to his students about Joey. These kids already knew the story of the hometown hero; they wore “We Remember Joey” T-shirts, saw the pictures of him in the school lobby and the gym, and helped place the small flags marking “Joey’s Mile,” the last stretch of the 10K.

But that was only part of the picture. Jimbo wanted to tell them about Joey not as a hero, but as a kid, and how much he was like them. “His death was the last chapter, but you can’t read a book and just read the last chapter,” he said.

And so the stories came, like playing soldiers as kids, crawling through the grass and his brother yelling at him to keep his butt down or he’d get shot.

He mentioned that history was Joey’s favorite subject, how he instinctively understood what each war was fought for. Their grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and had seven brothers in the service, one of whom served at the Battle of the Bulge; his uncle talked about his experiences more than his grandfather and Joey always paid close attention.

Jimbo told his students about Joey’s three-sport athletic career in high school, that he played basketball for Shelter Island; ran cross-country with Pierson and played lacrosse with the Ross School because the Island didn’t have teams. He was lead runner on the cross-country team and qualified for “states” in his senior year. He was unanimously voted team captain, but was “kind of a grump” when he ran the team, working them hard. Because the Island team bus had several different groups on it and usually ran late, Joey drove with Jimbo in his own car, arriving earlier than the home team. He was also Student Council representative junior year and president senior year, always working hard, getting things done. He was prom king senior year.

Joey was the self-appointed chauffeur for Jimbo and his friends before they were old enough to drive: tooling around the Island, “hundreds of laps, listening to music, talking about life and just messing around.” He said Joey made sure he got them home safely, even driving them to their prom in their father’s spiffed-up pickup truck. Joey was “always a good voice of reason, watching over us younger idiots.”

A couple of weeks after his talk, Jimbo interviewed graduating seniors for the Lt. Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Scholarship. He was impressed by how much they related Joey’s experiences to their own lives. Since Joey had gone to school here from K through 12, graduating in 2004, he told them that Joey had the same love/hate relationship with the Island that they probably did.

A student asked what advice he thought Joey would give and Jimbo answered, “Be proud of being from here. Keep it with you. Be true to yourself, hold onto your beliefs.”