‘Bingo’ Joe Ratyna Spreading Happiness With Letters, Numbers
If former longtime Newtown resident Joseph Ratyna appeared on a movie poster, the snippets of reviews surrounding his image would include statements like: “A perfect gentleman,” “Patient and kind,” “Well-liked,” “Accommodating and dedicated,” and “He is a peach...”
The widower, who now resides in neighboring Southbury, may be gone from the Newtown zip code, but he remains active locally and in the region, volunteering at various locations as a caller for table games.
In fact, he is so good at it that Mr Ratyna has earned the moniker “Bingo Joe.”
For years he has appeared to run keno, pokeno, and bingo games at the Newtown Senior Center, Nunnawauk Meadows, Maplewood at Newtown, and the Bishop Curtis facility in Bethel. And while many residents at these facilities have come to depend on him showing up without reminder and like clockwork each week or each month depending on demand, very few admit to knowing much else about him.
Sitting down with Mr Ratyna at his neat condo in Heritage Village reveals an individual one might expect to see devoting the bulk of volunteer time to landscaping or economic development pursuits.
Like many young contemporaries, Mr Ratyna was called to service in the waning months of the Korean War. He spent his military service just south of the demilitarized zone with North Korea as a radio operator supporting I Corps Artillery units as part of the occupation forces there.
Upon his return to the US, Mr Ratyna headed to UMass to complete a degree in landscape architecture and then went on to the University of Michigan to finish up a graduate degree in the field. With post-Korean War economic development and housing starts booming, he found loads of work in both established firms and under his own shingle as a design agency operator.
His first extended position was with a firm in Louisville, Ky., and it was there that he met his late wife, Sally.
“The population around Louisville at the time was growing rapidly, so the firm I was with was doing a lot of work designing for subdivisions that were springing up all around the Louisville suburbs,” he explained.
Eventually seeking a change of scene and pace, he and his wife moved to Cape Cod in the mid-1970s. They remained there until relocating to Newtown in 1982, where Mr Ratyna continued to find interesting work that demanded his expertise.
One of his last and most demanding projects before retiring in 2008 involved designing all the landscape and parking areas at Waterbury’s Brass Mills Mall, which runs adjacent to Interstate 84 just below the Holy Land cross landmark.
“That involved a lot of work, and all told, took about two years to complete,” he said.
Discovering Golden Opportunities
Since the early ‘80s and until his wife’s passing, the couple moved around Newtown, preferring the flexibility of renting versus settling into their own home. Mr Ratyna said one of their favorite rents was adjacent to the flagpole on Main Street.
Laughing at the memories, he recalled the many bags of candy he and Sally distributed during annual Halloween activities that draw thousands to the area for trick or treating, “and we always had the best front row seat for the Labor day parades,” he added.
The couple were also parishioners at St Rose of Lima, where they developed lasting friendships and participated in a regular social group that repaired to the Sandy Hook Diner every Wednesday following morning mass. It was there that the couple met Golden Opportunities founder Knettie Archard and her husband, Flip.
At the time, the Archards were in the early stages of developing a human services nonprofit with a mission to enhance the quality of life for residents of eldercare facilities by providing outreach services of comfort, compassion, and support.
“That was the summer of 2012,” Mr Ratyna said. “Knettie talked me into volunteering, so I started calling bingo, keno, and pokeno at Nunnawauk Meadows.”
As word of his willingness and talent for leading these popular games spread, Mr Ratyna found himself recruited or seeking other opportunities to do similar volunteer work at the Newtown Senior Center, then the Bishop Curtis facilities, and most recently at the Newtown Maplewood complex.
He admits to enjoying the social interaction, while confessing he is not very extroverted.
“The only times I ever did any public speaking was when I had to do presentations on projects for work,” he said.
“Maybe it was just something about my sparkling personality,” he added with a laugh, “but I enjoy working with people. Up until when I started at Bishop Curtiss, most of the audiences were made up of women.”
Although some bingo and keno callers conduct their business with game show host flair, Mr Ratyna approaches his duties with a “pretty functional” attitude.
“Thanks to Knettie and Golden Opportunities, I sort of fell into volunteering,” he said. “I never really developed a lot of social friendships on my own. It was my wife, Sally, who was the social one.”
In January of this year, Mr Ratyna discovered his ability to read some of the small numbers on bingo balls was becoming more difficult due to an advancing sight issue. But he was still able to call keno and pokeno games and was able to retain his driver’s license, so he could still get around to handle those duties.
“But I just found out Nunnawauk is getting a bingo game with balls that will be larger and easier to read,” he said with a smile, “so I’ll be able to get back there pretty soon.”
Compliments And Gratitude
The reassurance that Mr Ratyna was not going away anytime soon was music to the ears of various activity staffers he has worked with over the years.
At the Newtown Senior Center, where Mr Ratyna’s keno games are temporarily on hold following the agency’s recent relocation to Fairfield Hills, Assistant Judy Thomas said she cannot wait to see “Bingo Joe” return.
“We could always count on Joe to be there on time and when he was scheduled,” Ms Thomas said. “In my five or six years knowing him, he never didn’t show up and never took a sick day.”
The Senior Center staff member exuded a stream of compliments about the mild-mannered bingo volunteer, describing Mr Ratyna as “loyal, dedicated, and a perfect gentleman.”
“There’s so much I could say about Joe — he was so patient and kind to all the members, and he was very well liked,” she said, adding, “He is a peach, as they say.”
Maplewood’s Memory Care Director Stephanie Cuzino said her residents also mark their calendars for Mr Ratyna’s appearance at monthly keno games.
Ms Cuzino joked that Bingo Joe, “...isn’t in this for the money; he’s doing this out of a passion for working with elderly people.”
“He definitely has a really good connection with our residents and staff,” Ms Cuzino said. “We’re so grateful for his contribution. He has a real gift for interacting with our residents.”
Lynn Udhe, the assistant administrator at Nunnawauk Meadows, said they are also excited that Mr Ratyna will be able to return to his full service duties calling pokeno, keno, and bingo.
“Our residents like Joe a lot, and they always seem to know and come out in pretty good numbers when he’s here,” Ms Udhe said. “He’s so friendly and good natured. Every time he comes in, he’s got a big smile on his face for everyone. He’s such a pleasant person; everyone here loves it when he’s around.”