Joseph Stanley Ensign-Lewis Obituary
***Disclaimer: Joe would probably hate the idea of an obituary that lauded all his abilities and qualities. But he was really, truly a phenomenal person. So we’re doing this anyway, Joey Bear..***
Dr. Joseph Stanley Ensign-Lewis of Portland, Oregon, was tragically killed in a car accident on Saturday, March 30, 2019. Joe was driving on a road outside St. Paul, Oregon, when an out-of-control vehicle struck him head on at high speed; he was killed instantaneously. Joe was 33 years old.
Joe was born August 20, 1985, at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, California, to JoAnn Ensign and Bill Lewis. Named for his maternal grandfather, Joseph, and his paternal grandfather, Stanley, the family settled on “Joey”—“Joe Shmolobo” on special occasions. Joe was the youngest of three children, with an older sister, Jeannie, and an older brother, David. He fit in as the perfect caboose—simultaneously sweet and fiery.
Even as a young kid, Joe was a one-of-a-kind, larger-than-life person. Though he was generally angelic, as he got older, Joe started exhibiting what might gently be described as “meltdowns”—especially when he was disciplined or felt cornered. On one occasion after being sent to his room, his parents discovered he had peed on the floor in protest. One day JoAnn got the impression that when Joe made a mistake, all they needed to do was hug him. And it worked. He flourished when given love, and throughout his life, he responded positively to that principle of love first.
Throughout his childhood Joe showed immense athletic ability. He was an outstanding soccer player, with one youth team he belonged to in Palo Alto reaching the national championship in Denver—and winning. On that team which included several players who would go on to Division 1 and professional soccer, Joe was one of the standout players. And he was competitive to boot. In an elementary school “all about me” essay, he once wrote, “I am the most competitive person I know. The only person more competitive than me is my brother, David.” Later, as a young adult, he became the number four player in the world for Yahoo speed chess. He was simply a brilliant and gifted competitor.
Joe’s ability and competitiveness extended to school—he was immensely intelligent and driven to succeed. Even though Joe didn’t attend much of any school after 8th grade, his SAT scores basically alone earned him a scholarship to Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon; he would later receive significant tuition scholarships to BYU and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Joe was dealt a nearly crippling blow at age 11 when his mother, JoAnn, died after a long battle with breast cancer. Over the next several years he struggled to deal with this loss. During this time he was sustained by family, friends, Ultima Online (at which he became the number one player in the world at age 14), fast food, and Dumb and Dumber every night before he fell asleep. This was the first of many dark times for Joe in his life, and with love from family and friends, he found his way through.
After completing high school requirements, Joe found his way to Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. It was here that he met his first soul mate, Ramsey Selbak, who he beat (“illegally,” reminds Ramsey) in a ping pong tournament held by the college. Ramsey and Joe became forever friends and brothers, continuing their love for ping pong and each other through school transfers and hundreds of miles.
After time spent at Linfield, Joe served an LDS mission in Atlanta, Georgia, for two years, followed by a transfer to BYU in Provo, Utah, where he graduated top of his class (and promptly refused to speak at commencement).
Joe had always planned on attending medical school, but struggled to commit fully to something so long and expensive. After some time doing research at OHSU, he eventually applied to medical school. When he was accepted at several prestigious programs, he used his desirability to negotiate with several schools, finally settling on the one he felt fit him best and provided the most benefits—Penn in Philadelphia.
Medical school was particularly hard on Joe; it was immensely competitive and full of pressures, on top of showing him what he eventually saw as a broken system of medicine. Joe always cared most about people, and the reality he saw seemed impersonal and hierarchical. Many times, he wondered if he should continue his pursuit to become a doctor. He realized his own limits and took time off as needed to address his own mental health. Despite his difficulties and the extra time it took, Joe excelled at Penn yet again and graduated number two in his class. When he matched at OHSU for psychiatry, he was thrilled at the opportunity to be near his father, his brother David and his family, and Ramsey (who also matched as a resident at OHSU).
At OHSU, though he continued to struggle with the institution of medicine, he realized he loved the tools it gave him to help people. Joe had a supreme talent for listening and making people feel at ease. These talents, combined with the tools he learned in his psychiatry experiences, meant that he came into his own as a healer. He was able to connect to patients in ways others couldn’t, and he found deep satisfaction in that.
But all these successes by the world’s standards meant nothing to Joe. His greatest pride was in the people he knew and loved. He didn’t care about hierarchy or position—and he would readily tell you so. But in the way he spoke to people, in the way he could get someone to tell them his life story after knowing them for only 10 minutes, Joe exhibited his great love for knowing people. He loved his classmates, his colleagues, his friends, and his family with as deep a love as anyone could.
Joe was 100 percent himself with everyone. He never put on a front or adhered to what he saw as arbitrary mores—he was simply, unapologetically Joe. His disarming nature inherently encouraged authenticity, and because of that, he was able to break down walls where others couldn’t. He knew—really knew—most people with whom he came into contact, even those he met in passing. He had a way of making you feel at home with him, until you found yourself sharing some of your innermost thoughts and difficulties—which he would promptly try to help you resolve.
Joe was larger than life. He had a quick—and frequently inappropriate—wit that, if you caught it, would leave you in stitches (while shaking your head at yourself for laughing). He was wonderfully spontaneous: More than once he showed up on the doorstep of cross-country friends or family as a surprise. (Once he even wrapped himself in a big box to be unwrapped by his friends’ kids—and promptly scared the snot out of them when he jumped out.) During one spring break at Linfield, he encouraged Ramsey and other friends to pick up and drive to Yosemite with no planning at all (which left them with a broken tent in a snowstorm for one night, sleeping in a car for several nights, and breaking into ranger stations on other nights).
Joe loved tacos from Taco Bell, frozen taquitos from Costco, and salads from everywhere else. He loved “jump-jump juice,” car soccer (Rocket League), and baseball hats. He used a fork to eat ice cream right from the container, because it helped him to better mine out the best chunks (and once he’d had his fill, he would put the remaining ice cream back in the container and in the freezer). He would slowly eat snacks in halves—like a “teenage girl,” his brother said—until he either ate the whole thing or left a mangled partial piece behind. He would take only the best things and leave the rest behind—because life was too short to deal with stuff you don’t want. And he was good at hanging onto the things he loved.
Joe was immensely thoughtful. During his days in the lab at OHSU, he would ask his colleagues what their favorite candy was; and the next day, the candy would show up on their desk. He cleaned out fridges, brought dinner over to friends, planned fun vacations for family. One time a friend told Joe how sad she was to miss a big event for her sister, simply because the plane tickets were too expensive. Fifteen minutes later, this friend received a confirmation number from Joe for a plane ticket he had bought for her.
Joe was always there—in any part of your life that was important, he would find a way to be present. Whether you needed to borrow his car, or whether a niece or nephew had a soccer game, or whether you had a big item that needed moving—Joe made himself available. Throughout the time he owned a cell phone, Joe regularly texted his contacts to check in and see how they were doing—regardless of how recently he had seen them. Joe’s dad kept track of the family text frequency for fun, and one month Joe had sent 14, 000 text messages; on one day he sent more text messages alone than the rest of the family had for the entire month—combined. Joe spent countless late hours on the phone with friends helping them work through difficult situations; Joe was always the first call, good or bad, because he was always there.
Joe adored children. He was a beloved uncle to all his nieces and nephews. One of his nephews recalled that Joe was the only one who would always say “yes” to playing—no matter what. He had an infectious giggle when he was playing games or listening to the funny things kids would say. He loved to wrestle or act as a jungle gym, and when playtime was over, he was equally as happy to talk and help kids sort through things the same way he did with adults. One of the things he looked most forward to was becoming a father.
Sometimes Joe would become quiet and isolated, and those were the times it was his friends’ and family’s turns to reach back to him with extra love. Joe’s path was not an easy one, with more pain and mental anguish than many of us knew, but he made the most of life at every moment he could by fiercely loving everyone.
The most bittersweet aspect of Joe’s passing is that in the last six months of his life, he was the happiest he had been in 20 years. He found his second soul mate—a true partner and lifelong love in his girlfriend, Katie Searle, who he loved quickly and fiercely. In their time together, Joe had grown and developed a hope in the future that hadn’t quite existed before. To all those who knew him, it was wonderful to see. Armed with the love he had for her, and the love she had for him, Joe became more himself in all the best ways. Joe also loved Katie’s daughter, Vi, like his own, displaying his love of children on a deeper level as he looked forward to providing the best kind of support a stepdad could; in fact, one of the first things found on Joe after his accident was a picture of Vi, which he kept with him always. Together, Joe and Katie dreamed of a family and future together and hoped to one day start a foundation for helping homeless families find relief through housing and basic needs.
Joe and Katie’s future was cut far too short. There are too many things that should have happened but won’t. Those of us left behind can only hope to glean from the love and selflessness Joe taught to us and share that love again with the world around us. Joe would want us to break down barriers and give of ourselves without a second thought. And if we can do that, we will keep a part of him alive in the world and give him an even lovelier legacy.
Joe is survived by his partner, Katie Searle, and her daughter, Vi; his father, Bill Lewis; his sister Jeanne (Seth) Larson; his brother David (Kate) Ensign-Lewis; his stepmother, Lendie Bliss; his stepsiblings Melica (Will) Stevens, Mandy (Mat) Croft, Elaine (Jason) Guthrie, Eliot (Heather) Bliss; Holly (Scott) Jackson, April (Brett) Jensen; and numerous nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his mother, JoAnn Ensign.
Funeral services were held at the meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 1645 NW Baker Creek Rd., McMinnville, OR 97128, on Friday, April 5, at 12 noon.
Those wishing to donate to Portland Homeless Family Solutions in memory of Joe may visit http://www.pdxhfs.org