Joe Kapella had a reputation for taking people’s money. I called him “the community’s greatest hustler.”
When you saw him coming, you might as well reach for your wallet because he was not about to walk away without a chunk of your hard-earned cash.
It was easy to feel good about forking over the money, though, because it was almost always for a good cause.
Kapella was an early member of the Eagle River Lions Club and devoted his energy to raising money for the many causes supported by the group. From Little League to the annual Easter egg hunt and the Christmas party for children, he led the effort to come up with the wherewithal to fund it.
To illustrate his effectiveness, at the opening game for Knik Little League one season, Kapella arrived early, looked over the fans beginning to fill the bleachers, then proclaimed, “I bet I can get $300
out of this crowd.” He borrowed a batting helmet from the home team, the proceeded to make his way among the people, holding out the upturned headgear and demanding a contribution.
“Demand” is the right word. He did not ask if one cared to make a donation, or give an opportunity to say “No.” He just stuck the helmet out at shoulder level and asked, “How much are you going to give the kids?” Or, to change the appeal to another person standing nearby, it might be, “The kids need new uniforms, so you need to put in $5.”
You get the idea. Kapella made you feel like a heel if you didn’t drop some green into the helmet.
And he gave a figure he thought you would be able to part with. He was willing to take less, but not much without leaving you feeling like a miser. If it were a friend who pulled out his wallet and reached for a dollar bill, Kapella was known to grab the entire bankroll and say, “This ought to do it.” And this writer can speak from experience.
On that opening day excursion, Kapella brought the helmet back and counted out $304. His practiced eye had correctly judged the crowd. Had there been more time before the first pitch, he complained, he could have gleaned more.
Helped by Kapella’s efforts, the Lions Club was able to see many projects come to fruition.
They helped provide library books for a fledgling reading room. They raised money to obtain an ambulance for the volunteer fire department. They obtained a long-term lease on a large tract of land located on the outskirts of downtown Eagle River and built a clubhouse. Lions Park became a community gathering place where children were invited to play.
Sports was an early emphasis. Baseball was the only organized sport in summer and basketball and hockey occupied youngsters’ time in winter. The Lions Club sponsored one Little League team and a member sponsored another to be affiliated with the Katmai Little League in Mt. View. In 1963 when that league grew too large, the Lions helped create a separate Chugiak-Eagle River league for 10- 12-year-old boys. Knik Little League began to play in 1964 with four teams. Fields had been built by Lions club members and others at the Chugiak Benefit Association’s Carnival Grounds (present-day Chugiak Elementary School site) and Eagle River Elementary.
Today, Knik Little League has baseball teams for boys and girls age 4-16 and softball for girls age 9-15.
Knik teams have compiled excellent records and have participated in the Little League World Series. Kapella’s pioneer fund-raising efforts deserve credit for making those achievements possible.
Kapella was not shy when it came to raising money. Nor was he shy whenever a camera was in operation nearby. For several years, this writer made it a point to exclude photos where Kapella was a noticeable subject. A picture similar to the one above broke that tradition. The photo was cropped to remove the fundraiser’s image, except for his hand holding the check. The caption gave the name of the person receiving the check and the group benefitting from the award. Then it read, “Hand is that of Joe Kapella.”
By day, Kapella worked on Ft. Richardson. Before coming to Alaska from Joliet, Ill. he had been employed with the department of corrections.
Well before jogging and distance running became popular fitness activities, Kapella began running around Eagle River Loop. He participated in several marathons. During elections for the short-lived Chugiak-Eagle River Borough Assembly, Kapella used the “running” association as part of his campaign. He was one of four Eagle River residents elected to the seven-member body in 1974.
Kapella was cut down by a heart attack at the far-too-young age of 58. His fund-raising ability could have done so much more for community projects. A veteran who served in the U.S. Army, he is buried at the Ft. Richardson Cemetery.