The tears flowed because “Lil’ Joe,” as his family and friends called him, died so young.
The laughter came easily with the fond stories told by his brothers and sisters, his friends, and his ROTC captain and DeKalb Fire Explorers commander.
Joseph, who celebrated his 18th birthday on Sept. 14, died unexpectedly in his sleep on Nov. 24. He was the youngest of six children and a talented artist, AP student, math tutor, volunteer, poet and jokester.
His family and teachers say that he was looking forward to graduating, enrolling at SCAD, and joining the National Guard. His friends said that he helped them with their math homework.
His sudden death left both his biological and his Martin Luther King Jr. High School families reeling.
Katrina, his older sister by a year, said Sunday is “sleep-in” day at their Decatur home. So when Joseph didn’t get up for breakfast or lunch, no one thought anything of it.
Around 6 p.m., she went into his room to wake him for dinner. When he didn’t respond to her call, she tried to shake him awake. His body was stiff.
The family said he wasn’t sick and hadn’t complained about anything before turning in.
Trenton Wyatt, his brother, said their mother, Kathryn, looked in on him at 11 that night.
He went to bed and just never woke up.
News of Joseph’s sudden death shocked everyone who knew him.
Mark Jones, who taught him art for three years at ML King Jr. High School, said he didn’t believe the news at first.
“The last time I saw him was the Friday before Thanksgiving,” Jones said. “He was the last student to leave the room because he was taking all his artwork home to work on over the break.”
Jones said Joseph was a good and well-rounded child who excelled at math and art and was very involved in school life.
He was in the ROTC; the Art, Anime, and Poetry clubs; the DeKalb Fire Explorers; and the Family Career Community Leaders of America.
“He wanted to be part of everything to experience everything,” Jones said. “He was one of those kids who did it right from the get-go. In the three years I had him, never once did I have to tell him to pull up his pants.”
Febra Clark, the FCCLA’s faculty adviser, said Joseph loved to help and also was the first to volunteer.
“He would go to Traditions Nursing home to play bingo with seniors every second Saturday of the month,” she said. “He collected canned foods. He would just get in there and get it done. He was a self-starter – you never had to tell him what to do.”
Joseph also volunteered with Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless.
Elisabeth Omilami, who runs the organization started 43 years ago by her late father, civil rights leader Hosea Williams, said Lil’ Joe threw himself into the work he did for her organization.
“He swept the floors,” she said. “He folded the clothes for the homeless. He was a boy who not only saw the vision, but did the vision.”
Omilami said that Joseph’s presence would live in the food he fed the hungry and in the clothes he packed for them, and the shampoos he bagged for them.
“The question is who will take his place,” she said to the young people who packed the chapel at Gregory B. Levett & Sons Funeral Home on Flat Shoals Parkway. “Who will step up and say, ‘Miss Omilami, I will take his place.’ ”
She announced that they will name the organization’s food bank the “Lil’ Joe’s Outreach Department” in honor of Joseph.
“We will have his picture up and we will always remember him,” she said.
After telling funny stories about Joseph that had mourners smiling, retired Battalion Chief Seth Garcia, who runs the DeKalb Fire Explorers program, said they would create two scholarships in 2013 – a book scholarship for MLK students and one for an Explorer member who is going to college – in honor of Joseph.
“Lil’ Joe came to us when he was in seventh grade,” he said. “We start our program in the ninth grade. He snuck into the program.”
ROTC Cmdr. Edward Johnson said Joseph was always focused.
“Joseph didn’t get distracted by the riffraff,” he said. “Be like Joe. Know what you know and hold on to it.”
Joseph also is survived by his father, Joseph Charles Wyatt Sr.; brothers Rickey and Corey; and sister Kiara.
He is buried at Hillandale Memorial Gardens in Lithonia.