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SAN JOSE -- Everyone on the block knows Joe Bell. Whether he's tinkering with his old fishing boat in the driveway or telling World War II stories from the sidewalk, neighbors always stop to chat.
Once in a while he dons his uniform, which still fits his thin, 95-year-old frame, and wears it to the senior center for lunch on Veterans Day or to meet with other vets.
When he put it on again Sunday morning, something spectacular happened. Joe stepped outside his Cape Cod-style house in San Jose's Rose Garden neighborhood to cheer on runners in a race that benefits the foundation for fallen Army Ranger Pat Tillman. One by one, the runners left the course to shake an old soldier's hand.
I live two doors down from Joe and captured the moment with my iPhone. Within 48 hours, the 45-second video went viral and was picked up by the Today Show, Good Morning America, Fox, Runners World, and a host of other media outlets.
By Tuesday evening, the video had been viewed and shared more than a million times.
It started so simply. As Joe stood a bit stooped on the sidewalk waving and cheering, the runners started waving and cheering back. When one of them saluted, Joe saluted back.
"Go get 'em," he called out.
I started filming. Then one of the runners, a young man in a red shirt, ran onto the sidewalk and, mid-stride, shook Joe's hand.
"Thank you for your service," he said, panting, then jogged on.
Another runner followed, then another and another. They began to pile up. For a moment, I worried Joe might get knocked over.
But as I recorded, I couldn't help but get choked up to see this sweet old man, beloved by his neighbors, receiving a parade of tributes from strangers. It was especially poignant coming during a benefit for Tillman, a San Jose native who was killed in action in Afghanistan. Tillman had given up an NFL career to join the Army after 9/11.
Joe looked surprised, almost overwhelmed.
"I never got recognition in my life," he told me on Tuesday, as TV camera crews lined up at his door to tell the story of the former Army corporal who trained paratroopers from Italy to Africa for the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services that preceded the CIA. "I was a jumper in the OSS. That's all."
I wasn't covering the race as a news story, but I posted the video to the San Jose Mercury News website, thinking it was a simple feel-good moment that Joe and his family would enjoy.
The video got little traction Sunday night as millions of Americans instead were retweeting Ellen DeGeneres's selfie with the movie stars during the Oscars. But by Monday night, Yahoo posted it on its home page. By Tuesday morning, all the major networks were broadcasting the video and some sent news crews to Joe's house. One of them tracked down the first runner in the video, Erik Wittreich, a former Green Beret who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan who coincidentally had been awarded a Pat Tillman Foundation scholarship to finish his graduate work at Stanford.
"I just saw this former soldier showing a lot of respect for his uniform," Wittreich said while visiting Joe at his home Tuesday. "He was clearly proud to show he was in the military. It was important for me to thank him."
Joe lives with his grown son, Matt. His wife, Mary, died four years ago.
"I thought the video caught a moment in time that was honest," Matt Bell said. "There was nothing staged about it. It was an honest response from honest people. We don't see that too much."
And he hasn't seen his father this excited in a long time, he said.
Joe was born in 1919 in Shanghai, China, one of 17 children from a wealthy family descended from an American who joined Commodore Matthew Perry on his expedition to open trading with Japan in the 1850s. The family remained in China for generations until Joe and half his family moved to the United States in the 1930s just before Japan invaded China. He joined the Army in 1942. When he returned to San Jose, he worked as a tool-and-die maker at the FMC Corp. He and his wife raised seven children. Together, they ran Central Nursery School a few blocks away.
Joe is so hard of hearing, you almost have to shout for him to understand you. But he is as sharp as ever. He swims nearly every day at the YMCA or the senior center. Still, ambulances come and go from his house late at night when he feels his heart race and worries he's having a heart attack. He tells me from time to time he doesn't think he's going to live much longer. He's had a good long life, he says, and is ready to join his wife.
But first came the parade of well-wishers. During the race, perhaps most amazing of all was that the tributes among the 5,000 runners kept coming. Throughout the race, they came in waves. Women and men would be running down the middle of the street, then, without warning or prompt, one would peel off, then another.
"They hugged me and kissed me and the young men shook my hands," Joe said. "I never knew there were that many people that would do that."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at Twitter.com/juliasulek.