STAFF WRITER JARED FIELDS
When this guitar-pickin’ Marble Falls dentist survived prostate cancer and decided to retire, he went to the Alamo. Joey Piatek now volunteers as a part-time docent at the San Antonio mission, adding happiness, satisfaction, and fun to his life.
“If it’s not fun, I’m not interested in doing it,” he said. “That’s kind of my motto, you might say.”
Piatek retired after 37 years in dentistry in June 2017, a cancer survivor looking for a new chapter in life. He found that chapter, appropriately enough, in a book about the Alamo.
Piatek admits that, in the past, he didn’t care much for history. It certainly didn’t interest him in school. Then, his best friend, Dr. Mike Pharaoh, lent him a book about the subject that caught his attention. He followed that one with other books, reading them over the years, gathering facts and figures — the same kind of research that had intrigued him in his dental studies. He liked taking raw data and compiling it into a complete picture.
What pulled him into further study of the Alamo was the human element, his philosophical reflections on the people who fought in one of the most famous battles in Texas history.
Would he have stayed to fight during the 13-day siege as 532 projectiles bombarded the 4.2-acre compound? How would he have reacted if he were on the Mexican side attacking during the dark of night? Why do people make the choices they do in the name of liberty and freedom?
“I have a passion for that story, for what happened because of the human side of it,” Piatek said.
That passion and enthusiasm are obvious when he talks about the Alamo.
“I say things a lot of docents won’t out of fun,” he said.
Visitors to the Alamo sometimes ask Piatek if Texas has the right to secede from the United States since it was at one time an independent country. Texas was a republic from 1836 to 1845.
Piatek answers “No” because “Abraham Lincoln took care of that.” However, he tells them, Texas has the right to divide itself into five separate states.
“But most experts agree that as long as Willie Nelson is alive, the hippies and cowboys will get along,” Piatek joked. “But once he’s gone, we don’t know.”
Visitors might chuckle at his aside, but because of that human connection between past and present, they’re more likely to go home and remember the Alamo than if they had walked the grounds without Piatek as their guide.
Some questions are not so easily answered. For example: How many Mexican soldiers died at the Alamo?
Out of 19 reports by the Mexican army, 19 different answers have been given. On the low side: 65. The highest estimate is 2,000.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Piatek said. “That’s one of the appeals, the allure of the Alamo.”
Some people want all the details. Others want the 90-second version. Piatek can and will tell visitors all they want to know on his tours of the mission.
“My job is to fish out how much you want to know and give that to you,” he explained.
He takes as much time as the visitors are willing to spend.
As a retiree, Piatek now has time, which he uses to focus on his passions: family (wife Dee Anna, kids Brett, Meredith, and Joanna), music (guitar and fiddle), the Alamo, and fun. He credits dentistry with leading him to those interests, especially his work as a docent.
He and his fellow dental students were asked in class one day to write their own epitaphs. Piatek took the assignment seriously and spent the evening thinking about the question.
“Mine read: ‘If I have brought joy to but one fellow traveler, I can truly rest in peace,’” Piatek said.
That, he said, is his gift, no matter where he is.
“I believe I’m a fun person,” he said. “I think that’s why God put me here, was to have fun. I really believe that.”