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'Joe changed the world': Hundreds mourn corrections officer who died at Minnesota prison

A portrait of corrections officer Joseph Parise is displayed before funeral services for him at Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel. Parise, 37, of Forest Lake, Minn. died Sept. 24 at Regions Hospital in St. Paul after suffering a medical emergency at the Minnesota Correctional Facility- Oak Park Heights after responding to an inmate assault on another officer. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 3
Andrea Parise, center, widow of corrections officer Joseph Parise, leaves his graveside services at Fairview Cemetery in Stillwater on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. With Parise are her parents, Mike and Nancy Dean. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press2 / 3
Members of the Minnesota Law Enforcement Association Honor Guard carry the urn of Joseph Parise during his graveside services at Fairview Cemetery in Stillwater, Minn. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press3 / 3

ST. PAUL — When a fire broke out on Joe Parise's ship while he was serving in the U.S. Navy, Parise didn't join fellow officers preparing to abandon ship.

Instead, Parise turned around and ran directly into the fire, the Rev. Martin Shanahan told mourners at the corrections officer's funeral Tuesday morning, Oct. 2, at Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel. "He was able to extinguish it, so that nobody on board was hurt or injured," he said.

Parise, 37, of Forest Lake, died Sept. 24 at Regions Hospital in St. Paul after responding to an inmate assault on another officer at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park Heights.

Parise, a four-year veteran of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, had a medical emergency after running across the prison complex to help restrain the inmate, who reportedly punched an officer 15 times in the face. The cause of death is being investigated.

"On Sept. 24, Joe did it again," Shanahan said. "He ran directly into the conflict to help his comrades. He made sure everyone was safe and he returned to his post, and only then did he succumb to the stress of the event and offer up his life."

"He was a hero," Shanahan said. "He was doing what he loved to do. He was helping others. Joe changed the world. He changed it by caring for other people."

The chapel at Fort Snelling was packed with mourners on Tuesday morning for the hour-long service; hundreds of corrections officers stood outside and watched the proceedings.

Among the dignitaries who attended were Gov. Mark Dayton and Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach.

Parise's wife, Andrea, who is pregnant with the couple's second child, sat in the front row of the chapel surrounded by family members. The couple was married in the chapel, Shanahan said.

"Joe was a man of tremendous integrity," Shanahan said. "The Joe Parise that walked the corridors and the bubbles of the correctional facility at Oak Park Heights was the same Joe Parise that walked through the doors of your home. It was the same Joe who made sure that his co-workers were all OK. It was the same Joe who made sure, Andrea, that you and Lucy were OK."

Recalling a 'radiant smile'

James Carter, one of Parise's best friends, said Parise will be remembered for his infectious laugh, radiant smile, practical jokes and hair-care products.

"Joe loved Frank Sinatra's music, and I loved making fun of him for it," said Carter, who worked as a corrections officer at the prison until 2017. "No matter what your first impression of him was, eventually you couldn't help but to like him. Joe loved to have fun. He would find humor in every situation, and it was that humor that made working in prison bearable. Joe always reminded us not to take life too seriously."

Among Parise's favorite practical jokes: changing the background on someone's computer monitor, putting ink on the grip of a pen or poking a hole in the rim of a fellow officer's Styrofoam cup "so you'd spill water all over yourself," Carter said.

A few hours after Parise died, corrections officers gathered at a restaurant near the prison to mourn and toast their friend. While there, the restaurant's transformer blew twice, plunging the building into darkness, Carter said.

"There was no obvious reason for the transformers to blow that night: No motor vehicle collisions, no wind, no rain, no snow," Carter said. "Perhaps it was Joe's way of playing one last joke. I just know that he is still watching over us."

Fellow corrections officer Scott Roemer said Parise took great pride in serving in the prison's Honor Guard.

"He loved the look, he loved the march," Roemer said. "Everything the Honor Guard stood for, he loved."

Parise, a graduate of Austintown Fitch High School in Ohio, also loved cats, playing racquetball and going to the shooting range, friends said.

'Hug your family'

Parise's death was the latest tragedy in a run of assaults on prison officers in Minnesota.

In July, corrections officer Joseph Gomm, 45, of Blaine, was killed by an inmate who was serving time for homicide at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater.

Unlike Gomm, who didn't seek the spotlight, Parise would have loved the pomp and circumstance surrounding his funeral service, joked longtime friend Don Webber.

"We had a funeral in July, and one of the speakers there said something to the effect that 'Gomm wouldn't have wanted all this,'" Webber said. "Well, I'm pretty sure, Joe is going, 'Yessss! Heck yeah, I'm the star of the show, baby!'"

Carter urged those in attendance to follow Parise's example. "Hug your family a little tighter," he said. "Call that friend you haven't spoken to in a while. Tell people how much they mean to you. Never take a single day for granted. It is not guaranteed."

He ended his eulogy by thanking Parise for the memories.

"You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten," Carter said. "As your fellow sailors would say, 'Fair winds and following seas.' Rest easy, brother. We've got the watch from here."