Obituary: Lawrence 'Happy Joe' Whitty


Lawrence Joseph “Happy Joe” Whitty, 82, Davenport, completed his life’s work Tuesday, Oct. 29, at Clarissa C. Cook Hospice House, Bettendorf, surrounded by his family. Funeral services and a Mass of Christian Burial for Joe will be 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 9, at St. John Vianney Catholic Church, 4097-18th St., Bettendorf.  Burial will be in Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Davenport.  There will be a celebration of Joe’s extraordinary and well-lived life Saturday from 4 until 8 p.m. in the ballroom at the Jumer’s Casino and Hotel, 777 Jumer Dr., Rock Island.  All are welcome to attend and share their memories and stories. Halligan-McCabe-DeVries Funeral Home is assisting with arrangements.  In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to the Happy Joe’s Kids Foundation. Donations may be made online at or mailed to HJKF, 2705 Happy Joe Dr., Bettendorf, IA 52722.

Lawrence Joseph Whitty was born Sept. 10, 1937, in Minot, N.D., the middle of five children born to Lawrence E. and Roberta (Shaffer) Whitty.  Joe graduated from Des Lacs High School in 1956 and married Sandra Gay on Nov. 8, 1958, at St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Minot.  Their family quickly started growing with four busy kids.  Sandy died Nov. 8, 1974, following a courageous battle with leukemia. Joe married Nancy (Vogel) McGrath and her five equally busy kids on May 8, 1976, at Holy Family Catholic Church in Davenport.  Nancy preceded Joe in death on June 12, 2008.

In 1966, Joe and his family moved to Davenport, where he worked at the Super Value Bakery and later worked as a supervisor and manager at Shakey’s Pizza. While at Shakey’s, Joe came up with the idea to combine pizza and ice cream, an unlikely combination that did little to inspire enthusiasm in the owner.

Joe was determined to pursue the idea of opening a different kind of restaurant that would be family-oriented and kid-friendly.  He opened the first Happy Joe’s in the Village of East Davenport on Nov. 16, 1972.  He also was the innovator behind the Iowa Machine Shed and Grandma Whitty’s Cookies.

When the restaurant had been open for only a month, Joe started a custom that continues to this day - the restaurant closes for one day during the holiday season and he throws a holiday party for special needs children.  From these humble beginnings, the annual Happy Joe’s special needs holiday party has grown to a day long, two-session event that has entertained kids and their families over the past 47 years.  Joe presided over all of them with his jokes, smiles, hugs, and signature straw boater hat.  He had more fun than anyone.  

Joe’s entire perspective as a businessman was built on a foundation to seek out and engage the child in everyone.  He was enormously successful in his career because he never lost sight of who he was, where he came from and the importance of family.  He never lost his sense of fun and finding the happiness inside himself and those around him.  He had the creativity of a child for whom anything was possible and everything was attainable.  

His philanthropy was often directed toward those with special needs, the afflicted, and those whose lives needed an uplift or momentary flash of happiness. Joe was actively involved with Junior Achievement, Partners in Education, The Handicapped Development Center, and Tomorrows Leaders.   He is the founding member of the Happy Joe’s Kids Foundation, which supports organizations that help kids with special needs, whether those needs are developmental, income related or education-based.  

Among those left to cherish Joe’s memory are his children and their spouses: Robert and Michele McGrath, Susan and Jesus Carranza, Larry and Kathy Whitty, Carolyn and Augie Molina, Julie and Tom Losasso, Tim and Kathy Whitty, Dennis and Patty McGrath, and Kristel and Oguz Ersan; grandchildren: Katherine, Patrick (Heather), Christopher, Colleen, Jonathan, Michael, Matthew, Raquel (Jake), Estevan (Erin), Gabriela, Emma (Connor), Grant, Melissa (Carl), Anthony (Andrea), Jay (Andi), Anthony, Jenna (Kyle), Joey, Nick, Hannah, Robbie, Matt (Olivia), Evin and Ela; 12 great-grandchildren; siblings, Jim Whitty, and Sharon Wilkes, both of Minot; many nieces and nephews, and all of his animal buddies on the farm: his dogs Mandy and Tucker, his cat, Barney, and many horses.

In addition to the loves of his life, Sandy and Nancy, Joe was preceded in death by a son, Mike McGrath, granddaughter, Teresa Carranza, and siblings: Mary Lou Haugen and Tom Whitty.  May they rest in peace.

A special thank you to all of the family and friends in our community who cared for Joe, especially Matthew McGrath and those at Clarissa C. Cook Hospice House in his final hours.  Remember Joe with happiness.  He was a bright light in our world with an unforgettable smile and a compassionate, faithful heart.  Our community and our lives will not be the same without him.


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