Omaha resident Joe Wherry was a child who slipped through the cracks. As a toddler, he lived on the streets of his native Chicago under the loose supervision of skid row residents. He slept on a heating grate in front of a hotel for warmth. Now 64, Wherry spends his life making sure no one else slips through the cracks. “Everybody deserves someone to help them,” he says.
Despite some health challenges, Wherry remains cheery and lives on his own in West Omaha. The memorabilia in his apartment attests to that. For example, take the portrait of a 20-something Wherry in a flight jacket on the wall of his bedroom. Wherry served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. A “river rat,” in his words, he served as a boatswain’s mate in the Mekong Delta.
Wherry sustained multiple injuries in the line of duty. “I was medevaced three times before they sent me home,” he says. Eventually, he won the Purple Heart.
In the 1980s, he began volunteering as an advocate for fellow veterans, even as he himself fought for disability benefits related to post-traumatic stress disorder. Wherry also suffered ailments related to exposure to Agent Orange.
Tucked behind his military portrait there is a palm frond—the kind that gets handed out around Easter in Catholic churches. Wherry is an active member of St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn, serving as a greeter and an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. Wherry was exposed to Catholicism while a student at Boys Town, where he graduated high school in 1966.
“It was the first place where I could make something of myself,” he says of the home for wayward children. He was inducted into the Boys Town Hall of Fame in 2004.
Family portraits line Wherry’s walls along with his own. He met his wife, Marcia, when he was running a singles’ bar in Cicero, Ill., in 1972. She was a former Miss Tall Chicago. Two months later, they were engaged. Wherry has four children and six grandkids; Marcia succumbed to cancer in 1991.
While volunteering at a church school, Wherry saw a scoutmaster tell a boy to do a task “because I said so.” Wherry volunteered in order to be a different kind of leader. Decades later, his Boy Scout uniform is covered in patches awarded for services and accomplishments. If I can change it just by being there, I want to be there,” he says.
Wherry suffers frequent health problems, but that will not stop him helping others. “I’m going to keep doing it until I get it right,” he says with a laugh.