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Virginia McKinney gave homeless 'Joe' a last name -- and a family

December 15, 2009 |  2:30 pm
McKinney “Her life could be a movie,” a colleague enthused of Virginia McKinney after copy editing her news obituary. When an allergic reaction to a flu shot left her hard of hearing as an adult, she founded a Los Angeles center in 1965 to help the deaf community’s hardest-to-reach cases -- the poor, the homeless, immigrants and people who had no language skills   -- and ran it until her death.

The story took a true big-screen turn when a teenager, deaf and homeless, showed up at the center with everything he owned packed in a string-wrapped paper bag. Unable to speak, he laboriously wrote out his name on a card: “J-o-e.”

The “Deaf Wanderer,” as a 1982 headline in The Times called him, could only outline his life in broad gestures: “Father die. How old? Four, maybe. Home. Afraid. Cry. Mother leave. Look for her. I don’t know. Cry. Look for her. Look for her.”

As his communication skills grew, McKinney realized that Joe had spent most of his life as a homeless drifter, including about seven years in Los Angeles sleeping in drainpipes and abandoned cars.

“He talks about ‘Walk, walk, walk, walk. Starving and hungry and sick and the whole world a question mark,' ” McKinney said in the 1982 article. “And that’s the story of his life. Walk, walk, walk, walk, walk.”

"At Last, 'Joe' Is Somebody, the Court Decides," The Times reported in December 1982 when in a single day, Joe was given a birthplace (Los Angeles), a birthdate (April 1, 1963) and a last name when McKinney adopted him.

Today, Joe McKinney is enrolled at the West Valley Occupational Center, said his older brother, Walter, whom McKinney adopted as a young child in 1962.

-- Valerie J. Nelson

Photo: Virgina McKinney started the Communicative Development Center in her Los Feliz home.