Just Call Him Johnny Joe: An Interview by John Yevuta
There are certain people for whom a surname is superfluous. Think Pele, Beyonce, and Madonna. In West Virginia, “Johnny Joe” is all you need. He has traversed the state playing basketball and tennis, practicing law, selling his wares, and supporting local sports teams. He never leaves a room without making a new friend. J.J. grew up in New Martinsville, went to Wheeling College, attended WVU College of Law, and returned home to practice law and help his father run J.C. Mensore Distributing.
At the age of 82, he shows up for work at 6 a.m. every morning and has time for anyone who crosses his path. An opportunity to tell a joke or share an anecdote is rarely missed. Couple that with an encyclopedic memory and you can expect to be regaled by him with basketball and tennis stories from seventy years ago right up to today.
Any mention of his life would be incomplete without mentioning the business his father started in 1938, J.C. Mensore Distributing. J.C. borrowed $600 for the purchase of a truck and started a beer delivery business that continues under Mensore management to this day. Under John Joe’s leadership, the business expanded to its present location in 1978 and was the first beer wholesaler in West Virginia to have a temperature-controlled warehouse. He continued to expand the business by selling water and quality coffees when few others thought they could be profitable products in the Ohio Valley. Perhaps channeling his grandfather, Joe Shiben (who had started out as a peddler), he took time off from his law practice to sell his products to friends and associates. He ended up selling more coffee in Wheeling than Wheeling Coffee by sheer dint of his personality and persistence.
What was New Martinsville like growing up?
Fabulous. Everybody was so nice. The churches had a softball league; the merchants had a baseball league. My dad was a commissioner of a few of the leagues. There were so many great players and games to watch. After the games, they’d tap a keg at Bruce Park.
What was your goal as a youngster?
To be good enough to play basketball for Magnolia High School.
What was it like as a young lawyer in New Martinsville?
Early on I got audited by the IRS. I showed them records of how much I’d made that first year-$1,842.75. One of them said, “Mr. Mensore, somebody has made a mistake. We are sorry.” They shook their heads and left.
Harry Lantz asked me to run a title and paid me $350. I thought I’d hit the jackpot.
Tulane and I lived in an apartment on Fifth Street for ten years.
Sinatra had “My Way”, what would your signature song be?
Same thing. Paul Anka wrote “My Way” and happened to be a contemporary of mine. He made millions writing and singing songs. I thought about going to New York City and trying to make a go of it as a singer. My dad told me I’d go broke. I liked to point out Anka’s success to my dad.
By all accounts, your dad was a great guy. Please share a story about him.
My dad owned some cabins that became the Mobay Camp. His place was called “Wit’s End”. Someone asked him how it got that name. He said, “That boy of mine has me at my wit’s end.”
Your dad had you sweeping the warehouse and doing other jobs at the age of six.
I was paid $2 a week. When I went to apply for Social Security and I told them about working as a child, they said it was illegal. I told them they’d have to take it up with my dad, but he’s been dead for forty years.
How about your mom?
She was about 95 when I fell off the warehouse mezzanine. When I returned from the hospital, my arm was held together by a steel pole. My mom asked, “John Joe, are you going to be alright?” I answered, “Mom, only God and the doctor know.” She replied, “I’ve already talked to God, but I don’t know your doctor.”
What is something most people don’t know about your mother.
She was an opera singer and attended the Cincinnati Conservatory School of Music but had to drop out because of the Great Depression.
How did you meet Tulane?
It was during my second year of law school at WVU. She was so exceptional! Student government voted her Woman of the Year. She was the only woman in her law school class and, you can believe it, that was tough. At the time, there were more women in med school than in the entire law school. We practiced law together for 39 years.
Tell us about the rest of your family.
When it comes to them, I have plenty to brag about. Michelle teaches at the Charleston School of Law where she is also the director of public service and pro bono work for the college. John Charles is J.C. Mensore Distributing’s vice-president. Eddie is an award winning writer, producer and film director based out of Atlanta, Georgia. Nicole is an elementary substitute teacher in Boca Raton, Florida. We have seven grandchildren- 1 girl and 6 boys.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
My dad told me that the most important decision you will ever make is who you choose to marry. If it’s the correct one, they’ll stay with you whether you are rich, poor or blind.
Any keys to a successful marriage besides marrying a saint?
I didn’t marry a saint, but the closest thing to one. When you go into it, you have to know it’s a lifetime commitment. The best thing I’ve ever done was marry Tulane.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would advise my younger self to be more kind; be more kind to every person you meet.
How should a man handle growing older?
I’ve had a great life and want the best for everybody. If I go to heaven, I hope God gives me a good parking place because my legs are killing me.
You have played thousands of basketball games; is there one that stands out?
Our Wheeling College team played the WVU freshmen at Morgantown. At the end of the first half, we were only down 1 or 2 points and ended up losing 92-71. That WVU team included Jerry West and Willie Akers. Beating Duquesne’s team that year also brings back great memories.
You’ve sung all over. Any favorite venues?
Singing at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas has to be one. Getting to sing before 25,000 people at the Irish Parade in Charleston, SC is another. Singing the national anthem before the WVU game in Wheeling is still a highlight.
You are a consummate joke teller. Can you share one?
This was told on stage with Fred Wilcox as my straight man: “Hello there Big Time. How have you been?”
“I had a bad day yesterday. I had to severely discipline my dog.”
“That’s terrible. What was wrong with him? Was he mad?”
“He wasn’t too happy about it.”
You are a gamesman par excellence. When I played tennis against you, I always felt you knew what I was going to do before I did it. What are some techniques you used to size up an opponent?
I would go to Bruce Park and stand behind the fence. You can tell a player’s characteristics better when you are behind them.
In basketball, did you prefer playing offense of defense?
I could score, but loved to play defense. Like with tennis, I would watch a player and scout his idiosyncrasies, then use those against him.
Share a few of the awards you’ve received over the years.
In 1960, I was voted into the Wheeling College Hall of Honors by my classmates. I received the St. Ignatius Award at WJU. I’ve been voted Wetzel County Citizen of the year for the business and general category and was inducted into the Wetzel County Hall of Fame. In 2007, former Governor of West Virginia Joe Manchin made me an Ambassador of Music for West Virginia.
I’m going to try to stump your encyclopedic memory. Who were some of J.C. Mensore’s early employees?
You’ll have to do better than that: Charlie Higginbotham, Pete Clegg, Charlie Monsour, Nute Templeton, Lee Francis and Harry Burton. Also, in the early years, Windy Holsberry took care of a satellite warehouse in Huntington for my dad.
How many employees does J.C Mensore have now?
At present, we have 22 employees. They are the glue that keeps our business together. I can truly say that without them and their dedication we could not make it. Excellent workers are the key to a successful enterprise. Each one deserves recognition but I’d like to mention my two longest served employees-Kelly Nelson has been with us for 36 years and Mitch Collins has been with us for 26 years.
You were lucky enough to be able to help your dad. Now, your son, John Charles, has your back.
He has been working in the business full-time for 25 years. He has been very important to our success and without him it would be extremely difficult to continue J.C. Mensore Distributing.
What were some of the early beers you carried?
Anheuser-Busch supplied our first beer and has been with us all 82 years. The king of beers, Budweiser, has been a bedrock product for us all that time.
(Breaks into a medley of Augustiner, Fort Pitt and Red Top Jingles) Fort Pitt; Iron City; Duquesne; Red Top; Falls City-Louisville, KY; Augustiner-Columbus, OH; Wiedemann; Burger and Old German were some other early ones.
Are there human qualities you admire?
Financial honesty, hard work, and being kind to all people. I like to make business deals with a handshake.
You have carried on the family tradition of hard work.
My grandfather, Joe Shiben, was a peddler who went door to door before opening up a clothing store. My uncle, Paul Shiben, attended the University of Notre Dame, Harvard Law School and worked for the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt before returning to New Martinsville to practice law. My father was involved in a number of small businesses in Wheeling until mom made it clear she wanted to raise me in New Martinsville. He started J.C. Mensore Distributing in a rented building.
Is there a human quality you deplore?
Intentional meanness toward other people.
Is there a mistake that you’ve made that you’d like to have a do over on?
Lots of them. There isn’t just one, but they haven’t been done intentionally.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a friendly guy who was generous to anyone in need. A person who liked everyone even, in some cases, when they didn’t like me.
Who would you invite to your dream party?
My mother, father, Uncle Paul, Aunt Elenor, Tulane, our kids and grandchildren would be perfect.