Joseph Lovrecich was working as a painter for bridges and buildings when he dropped a can of paint from the scaffolding, splattering a car below. When confronted by the car owner, the Italian immigrant quickly pretended not to know English, using minimal knowledge to speak Yugoslavian.
"The man, surprisingly, turned out to be Yugoslavian. And in his happiness to hear his own language, he totally forgot about the paint," said Lovrecich’s daughter, Nancy Burgos of Bethpage.
That wasn’t the first time Lovrecich’s quick thinking and sense of humor had gotten him out of a difficult situation. In fact, his ability to smile through life was his trademark.
"The biggest thing about my father was his sense of humor. He made everyone laugh," Burgos said. "His life and the stuff he had to deal with, he turned it all around with his sense of humor."
Born in Italy, Lovrecich was sent to an orphanage at 11 after the death of his mother. When he got older, he worked odd jobs — including burying bodies in unmarked graves during World War II — to help take care of his three younger siblings, often spending his nights sleeping in churches. At 17, he was notified that his father, a police officer serving in the war, had died.
"I think someone else could have been miserable, but he always looked at the bright side and that was his coping mechanism," Burgos said. "Although he was thrown all this, that’s how he handled it: 'I have to persevere and have to be positive.' "
That perseverance led him to America, a voyage he made while working in the kitchen of an Italian cruise ship. Over the course of the next 70 years, he would go from a poor orphaned immigrant living in a windowless room in Hell’s Kitchen to a doting grandfather and patent holder who had traveled around the world.
The longtime Plainview resident died on April 14 at 94 years old of congestive heart failure.
Lovrecich relished the opportunity to recount stories of his life, often sharing them over a good meal or the albums that filled the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves he had built in his home. One of his favorite tales was how he met his wife, Anita.
"His friend convinced him to go across town for night school to learn English … it was there that he sat in the back of the classroom and … whistled at the instructor. He told his friend, ‘someday, I am going to marry the teacher,’" Burgos recalled.
Five months later, he made good on that promise. The two were married 63 years, until Anita’s death in 2013.
In between working as a painter, he finished high school then college at Brooklyn Polytechnic University where he got a degree in electrical engineering. After working for Hazeltine, he joined Grumman Aerospace in 1963, inventing a video display simulator-analyzer, which was patented in 1988.
When his family bought a home in Plainview, Lovrecich was a "one-man show," said Burgos, doing all the electrical work, plumbing and landscaping for the house. He used his construction skills to build a basement, pool and deck, as well as an extension for his mother-in-law to live in.
He led family and friends on tours of New York City, in addition to organizing trips to Washington, D.C., Maryland and Boston. His love of travel also took him and his family abroad, with excursions to far-off locales like Argentina, Brazil, Africa and Australia, and Italy when he was 90 years old. He made friends everywhere he went, keeping in touch with those he met overseas through calls, letters and emails.
He was an avid cribbage player and "polar bear swimmer," taking dips in the ocean nearly year-round. He spent Friday nights playing poker with his sister who emigrated from Italy, and never missed one of his grandchildren’s soccer games or school concerts. In more recent years as his health declined, his positivity endured.
"In all of his pains and sufferings, he never complained or projected it on anyone else," Burgos said. "He was always concerned about somebody else."
In addition to Burgos, Lovrecich is survived by a son, Dennis, of Commack, son-in-law, Will, of Bethpage and three grandchildren — Josef, Vianne and Kalena Burgos. A memorial service was held on Sept. 12.