Nearing 91, Joe Vass is still go-to guy at Capitol Police
The U.S. Marines were dancing boisterously in their dress blue uniforms to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball a few weeks ago in Virginia Beach.
But one man in the center of the dance circle commanded the most attention — Joe Vass, just shy of his 91st birthday, with plenty of energy to spare.
“Not bad for an old man,” he said after sharing video of his dance performance.
Joe Vass does not stand still, whether at work or at play.
He’s entering his eighth year at the Virginia Division of Capitol Police, where he serves as inventory and supply officer, the person police officers ask for help with uniforms and equipment. He just observed his 68th anniversary with his wife, Barbara, known as Bobbie, in September.
“I’m thankful for my wife, and I’m thankful for my job,” he said.
Vass also is thankful for a life in public service, more than 75 years after his first military foray, at age 15, for the Virginia Protective Force during World War II.
He was attending Thomas Jefferson High School in Richmond, where he had grown up on Grayland Avenue under the primary care of his grandmother after his parents split. A high school trumpet player, he figures he bugled taps at more than 100 military funerals, while learning to handle a Thompson submachine gun for the U.S. Army force formed in 1941.
At 16, Vass joined the U.S. Navy after his mother told the recruiter he was 17, and saw service during the war as a gun-range finder on three destroyers, including one torpedoed by a German U-boat.
After he left the Navy in 1947, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps the next year. That earned him a trip to Korea, where he was assigned to a demolition team that detected and disarmed mines North Korean soldiers buried during the war there.
“The next day, I was on my hands and knees digging in the ground with a bayonet for mines,” he said in a jovial interview at his Capitol Police office in the Washington Building on Capitol Square.
While in Korea, Vass was wounded by a grenade that exploded as he tried to kick it out of his foxhole, but he found a way — off the record — to avoid transfer to a hospital ship that would have taken him out of action with his unit as a potential invasion of China loomed under then-Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
“I didn’t want to be left out of the invasion,” he said, even though President Harry Truman made sure that MacArthur didn’t get his way.
Vass has served as a security police staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and patrolled in his own boat for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary while he was working as police chief in Poquoson.
He worked briefly for the Henrico County Division of Police after leaving the Marines in 1955 and then in a Marine Reserve unit.
Vass assembled a small police force in Boykins, a town in Southampton County, and later ran his own security firm in Williamsburg.
After giving up his business, he volunteered in the Virginia Defense Force and eventually became security chief for the Virginia National Guard’s 224th Aviation Regiment in Sandston. He worked there until his state retirement in 2011.
He worked for a short time as private security at state parking decks in downtown Richmond, but soon found an opportunity at Capitol Police, which needed a supply officer.
Vass never had a supply officer when he ran police departments in Poquoson or Boykins, “so I had to buy everything.”
Now, he works 28 hours per week, commuting between the Capitol and his home in New Kent County in his red Mustang.
“It’s the best job I ever had,” he said.
That’s saying something for a guy whose first job was selling food on a Chesapeake & Ohio train between Richmond and North Carolina, thanks to his grandfather, who worked for the railroad.
“I’ve never been on unemployment,” he said. “I’ve always found something.”
His state office glitters with Marine Corps memorabilia, reflecting his devotion to the service. He’s commandant of the Marine Corps League Detachment in Virginia.
Vass also is a founder and treasurer of the Capitol Lodge, #79, of the Fraternal Order of Police. The lodge was founded this year, 400 years after Capitol Police began as an arm of the House of Burgesses, and is open to state law officers.
Capitol Police Chief Anthony “Steve” Pike nominated him for the Governor’s Star Award this year. Vass didn’t win, but his boss said in the application, “Yes, he is a star for the Capitol Police, but he has been a star for his country since well before many of us were born.”
Vass is just happy to be busy with a job he loves.
“I’m thankful to serve my country and Capitol Police,” he said. “I consider Capitol Police my home. I’d put the uniform on tomorrow if (the chief) needed me to do it.”