Local Obituaries

Entertainer, food executive Joe Wessel dies at 89

Joe Wessel worked as area manager for McCormick Spice Co. for 35 years and had off-Broadway roles in several popular musicals in the early 1950s.
Joe Wessel worked as area manager for McCormick Spice Co. for 35 years and had off-Broadway roles in several popular musicals in the early 1950s.

Maybe it’s because he was born as one of 10 children in the Wessel family — one of the first families to settle in Miami Beach in the early-1900s and pioneers in the development of Normandy Isle and St. Patrick Catholic Church.

Louis Joseph Wessel had to stand out, somehow. He aimed high and expected the same from his children, who followed through and became leaders in the fields of education and sports.

Wessel’s three children — Margie, Joe and Ann Marie — were inducted into the Monsignor Edward Pace High School for their athletic accomplishments. All three went into coaching and education. Margie has been an administrator at St. Thomas Aquinas High School for 25 years. Joe was an NFL coach. Ann has been at Miami Shores Recreational Center for 15 years.

Their mother, Wessel’s wife Marjorie, a former assistant principal in a 48-year career with Miami-Dade schools, followed her children with her own induction into the Pace Hall of Fame for her volunteer work.

“The Wessel name is long-standing on the Beach,” said Wessel’s daughter Margie, after her father died of pulmonary fibrosis on Feb. 28. Wessel was 89.

“My dad was instrumental in pushing us to be our best. He had a love of music so we all took music lessons when we were little. The discipline we forwarded from that to the athletic field,” Margie Wessel said.

After high school at St. Patrick’s Catholic School on the Beach, Wessel — know by many as “Papa Joe” and “Spicey Joe,” for his career in the spice and food industry — served in the Navy during World War II and did tours of Okinawa, Pearl Harbor, New Guinea and Cairns, Australia. After his service, he earned his bachelor’s in music from the University of Miami.

He also went to New York to pursue his dream. Wessel, with his superlative singing voice, was going to be a musical theater actor.

Now, many actors, the cliche goes, find work as waiters while going from one audition to another on Broadway. But Wessel aimed for a restaurant’s top position. While auditioning, and scoring off-Broadway parts in productions of Brigadoon, Kiss Me, Kate and Oklahoma, Wessel worked as a chef.

Alas, Wessel, for all his dedication, wasn’t going to be the next Rex Harrison. He returned to South Florida and sang at the Beach hotels, sometimes using the stage name Bob Russell. He helped raise his family in Carol City and North Miami.

Wessel, a parishioner and minister at numerous Catholic churches, including St. Patrick, St. Joseph’s, and St. Rose of Lima, had executive positions with Nestlé and retired about 20 years ago from McCormick Spice Co. after 35 years as its area manager.

“He loved to cook and loved to entertain. That was his other passion,” Margie said. He also loved golf and the water, having grown up on the Beach. He would have been born on Miami Beach were it not for the hurricane of 1926. Wessel’s mother and father, Esther and Louis, a contractor who helped build Normandy Isle, took a train to Dubuque, Iowa, to escape the storm and deliver their son on Aug. 14, 1926. Shortly after, they returned to the Beach.

Margie Wessel laughs when she recalls her Silver Knight achievement in 1977. Rocky composer Bill Conti was at the ceremony. Conti was a Silver Knight winner in 1959. Wessel, the music lover, “didn’t care about me winning, he just loved being there,” Margie teased. Two of his kids, Margie and Joe, also went to Florida State, something that didn’t quite sit well with the Hurricanes fan. “He cheered for us when we were not playing against UM,” Margie said.

But it was all out of love.

“For days I’ve been listening to everybody’s stories about Dad. He had friends as deep as the sea. He never lost touch. No matter where we went if we went to a city if someone was there … a five-hour drive turned into an eight-hour drive to stop,” Margie said. “He was a tiger, strong as an ox. Even up to his last days, the nurses couldn’t believe he was fighting. He was a lover of life.”

In addition to his wife of 59 years and three children, Wessel is survived by nine grandchildren, his sister Rita Peters and brothers William and David Wessel. A visitation will be at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Martha’s Catholic Church, 9301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami Shores. A funeral Mass will be at noon Monday at St. Patrick Catholic Church, 3716 Garden Ave., Miami Beach. Donations in Wessel’s name can be sent to St. Patrick Catholic Church for its restoration and First Tee Miami.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen