Daggett feels lucky after fire gutted his apartment

bspear@thestate.comOctober 12, 2013 

Bad things happen.

Sooner or later, the pain of unexpected turmoil will touch every life – and a person’s response in those challenging times is telling.

Does a person curse the storms of fate or search for a rainbow?

Joe Daggett chose the latter.

Folks who have been around these parts for more than 20 years will remember Joe, one of the most familiar faces in the state’s world of sports during his 14 years at WIS-TV. He moved on to a more rewarding endeavor, teaching English as a second language, that has landed him in spots ranging from the University of South Carolina to Poland.

Then, he got wiped out last month.

A fire raged through his apartment complex, turning a lifetime of treasures into ashes.

The baseball autographed by his childhood hero, Ted Williams?

Gone.

The baseball with the signatures of Henry Aaron and Phil Niekro?

Reduced to rubble.

The signed Ted Williams and Wayne Gretzky pictures?

Gone.

The pictures of his deceased parents and those from his youth?

Gone.

Clothes, most purchased from high-end stores?

Gone. The Order of the Palmetto from Gov. David Beasley?

Gone.

All the awards for television excellence?

Gone.

About all that’s left after the inferno at Granby Oaks?

“A couple of pair of Chinos” he had with him, he says.

Now, a month later, Joe Daggett reflects on those life-changing moments and decides, “I feel like I have a guardian angel on my shoulder.”

Even with his life turned upside-down and so many material belongings destroyed, Daggett knows his situation could have been far worse.

His next-door neighbor, Jay Gross, did not escape the blaze that took out four units at Granby Oaks on the night of Sept. 12.

Another resident, Daniel Dupuy, was charged this week with involuntary manslaughter after investigators say he did nothing to prevent the spread of the fire that started in his apartment.

“I’m very fortunate,” Daggett says. “If I had been home, who knows ...?”

Instead, he spent that evening at his daughter and son-in-law’s home in Blythewood.

“House-sitting,” he said. “Some people called and told me about a big fire at Granby Oaks. I thought, ‘What are the odds that it’s my complex?’ So, I didn’t worry.”

Then the television news came on at 11.

“I could see that it was either mine or the one next door,” Daggett says. “I’m lucky that I wasn’t there. The people of the first floor made it, but my neighbor, a nice and very talented man, couldn’t get out.”

Daggett lost everything, yet he could have lost more. In his years in the media world that included stops in Champaign, Ill., Seattle and Phoenix before Columbia, he rubbed elbows with big names in sports – Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali among them – and opportunities abounded to collect post-interview souvenirs.

“But I never asked for an autograph,” he says. “I didn’t think that was professional. The (sports) things I had people gave me.”

He treasured his Ted Williams baseball and pictures. He grew up in Maine and loved the Red Sox.

He still does, watching almost every game on his cable TV package and relishing the team’s 2013 march into the American League Championship Series.

But losing the family pictures – those of his parents and from his youth – hurt more.

Still, he says, “I understand how fortunate I am.”

The fire isn’t the first time fate entered his life. Years ago, in 1980, a failed hockey team sent him to Columbia.

“I did play-by-play for the Phoenix hockey team that was folding,” Daggett, 73, remembers. “I was a guy with a wife and three kids, and I was going to be high and dry. I still wanted to be in sports, sent (audition) tapes to stations around the country and got a nibble from WIS. Talk about a great time to be here; I came the year George Rogers won the Heisman.”

Among the stories he remembers covering was USC football coach Joe Morrison’s death.

“A Sunday night, and I had plans,” he says. “Rick (Henry, who followed Daggett at WIS) called and told me the coach had had a heart attack. I told him, ‘Let me know what happens.’ Rick called back with information of his death and I went to Providence Hospital and stood out there by myself doing live interviews of anyone who came out. King Dixon told me, ‘Coach has been called home by the Lord.’ I had never heard that Southern expression before.”

After leaving WIS in the mid-1990s, he spent a year in Germany before turning to his college training in linguistics and teaching English as a second language. In addition to stints at USC, he taught two years in Poland, one in the Czech Republic and another in Chile.

He spent time away from those international classes “poking around in flea markets and picking up a lot of stuff I lost in the fires,” he says. “I also lost an oil painting of Tadeusz Kosciuszko that a Polish friend gave to me.”

Tadeusz Kosciuszko? Don’t remember him? Joe Daggett does.

“He fought with George Washington in the American Revolution and also fought for freedom in Poland,” he says.

“I look back and try to be cheerful about (the fire),” Daggett says. “I count my blessings. I’m alive, for one thing, and for another, I have a much better appreciation for my friends.”

After learning of the fire, his fellow instructors and his students at USC’s English Program for Internationals “have gotten behind me.” The faculty and students “passed the hat,” he says, for immediate financial assistance. “They really stepped up to the plate.”

So, Joe Daggett starts over. He’s living with his daughter and son-in-law and plans to move back in at Granby Oaks.

“I want to keep things in perspective,” he says. “It’s not so bad what happened to me. People get wiped out all the time – Oklahoma (tornado), Colorado (floods), the Jersey Shore (storm). I’ve got people looking out for me, and I’m starting a new phase in my life. That’s why I feel like I do. I know I have a guardian angel on my shoulder.”

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