Orlando Sentinel: Journey of a lifetime
Journey of a lifetime
George and Julie Milligan raised their children to be citizens of the world. Son Joe took these teachings to heart, succeeding in ways his parents are still learning about.
By Michael McLeod | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted October 12, 2003
When George and Julie Milligan were raising their two children, they tried to be generous with praise, consistent with discipline, firm about schoolwork, fair about chores.
And as soon as Joe and Katie were in grade school, their parents added one more element to the child-rearing mix.
They traveled with them.
They didn't take the insulated, tour-package, American-hotel approach. They concocted their own itineraries, budgeting shrewdly and handling surprises as they came. By the time the children were in high school they had been to Europe three times. They had hiked through the Black Forest in Germany, fed stray cats in Italian plazas, seen museums in France, castles in Austria, Alps in Switzerland.
The Milligans raised their children in College Park, but they wanted them to be citizens of the world. Different points of view and ways of life were to be respected. Just because someone spoke another language and had a toilet that flushed a little differently than the ones at home was no reason to keep them at a distance.
As Joe and Katie grew into young adults, the Milligans could see how profoundly they had been influenced by traveling, each in a different way.
This time a year ago, the Milligans needed a globe to keep track of their offspring.
By then, Katie spoke six languages. She had been in West Africa, on her second trip to the continent, living in a village without electricity or running water, helping community elders apply for loans to modernize their farms and their homes. They worried about her.
But Joe -- Joe was in paradise.
So they all thought.
Joe was the independent type.
His first words were: "I do it."
When he was 9 months old, his mother tried to help him master the art of crawling backward down the steps. Joe came up with his own approach: He spun around on his belly, stretched out his arms and thumped down the staircase headfirst.
That was Joe.
And that was Joe for the next 23 years, gliding through life with his arms outstretched, taking joyous risks and always getting by with them.
He was laminated with charm. The girlfriends were always beautiful and smart and loving, and somehow after the breakups they loved him still. The grades were always just good enough.
When he was in middle school, the family would spend their weekends at New Smyrna Beach. His father would fish. Joe and his buddies would surf. It kept them out of trouble, usually.
Once, in the middle of a school day, when he should have been in classes at Edgewater High School, his mother was driving through College Park when she looked over and saw Joe sitting in a car with a friend by his side and a pair of surfboards poking out the back.
She honked the horn and pulled him over. "You're busted," she said.
By his junior year, he'd torn all the wallpaper out of his bedroom and replaced it with posters of professional surfers in the midst of spectacular gymnastics. If you looked closely, you could see that he had slipped a few action snapshots of himself in amongst them.
When he went to college, he chose one on the coastline of South Carolina, near an inlet that offered great surfing.
He transferred to an Australian school in his junior year. Coincidentally, the surf outside its hallowed halls was among the best in the world.
In the late summer of 2002, he had just graduated with a degree in business communications from Bond University, in Queensland, Australia. To celebrate, he planned a monthlong surfing expedition to Bali, just a short flight away from the Australian coast. It would be his personal grand tour, a last hurrah to college life before returning to the United States to look for work.
His father sent him an e-mail that September.
Hey, Big Boy:
Hadn't talked to you in a while. Hope things are going well for you as you round the home stretch. Just wanted you to know I am proud of you that you had the gumption to make your own way and travel halfway around the world to pursue your interests.
Joe wrote back, telling his father he knew he couldn't surf for the rest of his life, that he wanted to go fishing with him in the Everglades when he came home, and talk over his plans for a future, perhaps in the travel industry.
Later that month, Joe called his mother. She told him her hug meter was very low, and she needed him to come home and top it off. She settled for a phone hug.
That was the last time she ever spoke to him.
A new perspective
On Oct. 12, 2002, near the end of his one-month Indonesian surfing tour, Joe was with friends at the Sari Club, a popular nightspot in Bali's tourist district. He was headed out the door of the club to check on a friend back at his hotel who hadn't been feeling well.
In the street just outside the entrance to the club was a 1983 Mitsubishi van with more than a ton of explosives inside, driven by a suicide bomber bent on killing Westerners. Joe was among the 202 people from 21 countries who were killed in the explosion.
The Bali bombing, which took the lives of seven Americans, did not hold the national spotlight for long. The attention of the country quickly shifted back to a threat closer to home -- the series of sniper shootings near Washington, D.C.
There were times, a year ago, when the Milligans felt as if they were grieving in a vacuum. It was as if the nation had shrugged its shoulders and turned away.
But gradually, they began hearing from people all over the world who had been touched in some way by their son. High school friends, fraternity brothers, a surfer from California, a man who had simply heard such good things about Joe while in Bali that he was sorry he would never get to meet him.
Out of those communications -- letters, phone calls, e-mails, home videotapes, and postings on a memorial Web site -- the Milligans have begun to pull together a view of Joe that has often surprised them and has helped them to heal.
It wasn't as though they had been ignoring their son. It wasn't as though he had harbored deep secrets. He had simply grown into a man, and he had done most of the growing while out of their sight.
He had been away in college for five years. He lived on another continent and had made friends with people of all nationalities. He had become the citizen of the world that they had raised him to be.
What the Milligans have discovered about Joe will never bring him home. But it helps them, as much as anything can, to bear his absence.
To Joe, who inspired me to surf. Every day that I surf I look up at the sky and thank Joe for the waves that he has sent me. I just got back from Costa Rica for the first time where Joe started his journeys of surfing and the waves were awesome double overhead and barreling. I paddled out and got crushed. I finally made it out and caught my first wave and pulled into the barrel and got out and just looked up at the sky with my heart pounding with disbelief and thanked Joe for inspiring me to surf and I knew he was there with me.
Thank you Joe.
-- A tribute from a memorial Web site commemorating Joe Milligan, posted by his cousin, Tyler Sears
It would have to start with the surfing.
They figured he would let it go as he grew older.
But he never really did. And it wasn't until after Joe died that his parents began to understand why.
Two University of Florida students contacted the Milligans and sent them part of a documentary about surfers they had made for a film class while vacationing in Australia. They had met Joe and interviewed him.
The tape was a godsend for the Milligans.
They watched it over and over, listening to Joe -- he was so earnest about it -- trying to convey to the filmmakers the thrill of surfing, what it was like to ride the waves and feel the power of the earth and the sea coursing through you. He tells them that in Australia, where surfing is taken seriously, there are debates about whether it's an art form or a sport.
"It sounds corny," he says, "but it's like a religion you live and breathe."
He says that one of his greatest thrills in Australia was finding himself sharing waves with professional surfers he had worshiped as a kid.
He had found a place in the world where the scenes on his bedroom walls came to life.
The Milligans also discovered that as Joe was nearing the last days of his Bali surfing idyll, he wrote two e-mails to buddies back home, probably from an Internet café.
He was happy, hardly able to contain himself as he wrote about moonlit swells, narrow escapes, camaraderie among the waves.
The e-mails are breathless, exultant, astonished, filled with choppy surfing argot and the worshipful tones of someone who had just stumbled into a chamber of priceless treasures.
"Surfed out there two nights in a row on a full moon, just me and this classic Aussie kid," he wrote. "Overhead sets and just perfect moon-lit pits that spit you out into rippable walls. The morning sessions have been on too, not too crowded and just perfect. Mental sessions boys -- they rank pretty highly."
In another e-mail, he spoke of a powerful wave he'd been able to catch -- a "freak," he called it.
"The one freak barrel I mentioned was on the biggest and most lined up day of the trip, and everyone saw it 'cause I was out on the back and I free-fell so gnarly and barely pulled up into the beast, but only one guy saw me come out, this classic ripper Aussie guy that was toward the end of the point. He was freakin' -- he called it the barrel of the day by far, if not the barrel of the whole swell. No one would have believed that I came out if he didn't see it 'cause I was so deep."
He apologized for rambling. "Anyway, I'm getting too rowdy, settle down, skin! Writing another novel -- I can't escape it. I'm traveling solo, so I gotta get my stories out before I forget 'em all and they all blend together and I got nothing to tell. I gotta bail."
This is the way I remember you, Joe, fearless and ever in search of that rush that makes life great. Now once again you are the first to make the plunge, this time charging into the next life, whatever it may be. Just make sure you save me a spot because some day I hope to be right there next to you, once again.
-- Friend Mac Borling on Joe's memorial Web site
Somehow, as he grew up, motivation was never much of a priority for Joe.
His sister was the overachiever, raking in straight A's.
Joe was a minimalist. He became legendary among friends for his knack of never being caught studying, yet somehow winding up with B's.
Katie competed fiercely in crew, earning regional honors.
Once, Joe was among the leaders in a surfing tournament. He decided, in the middle of it, that he wanted to go out and surf with friends. So he left.
When it came time for college, Katie took the SAT several times, to raise her score.
Joe took the test once. When his mother suggested he try again, he rolled his eyes. "Why waste another Saturday?" he said.
So it came as a surprise to the Milligans after Joe's death that so many of the letters, e-mails, telephone calls and Web site postings were from people who wanted to tell them how much he had inspired and motivated them.
Catherine O'Connor, a San Francisco investment counselor who grew up with Joe in College Park from toddler days through high school, insisted on setting up a scholarship fund in his honor.
"Joe always pushed me," she says. "To jump from the tree in his front yard. To rethink ideas on politics and religion. To swim out deeper in the ocean, maybe even to skip school once or twice."
Joe talked Robert Sean Robertson, a high school friend, into traveling halfway across the world, to go to school in Australia with him.
"He made you a better person, more alive, just being around him," says a high school surfing buddy, Brad Graham. "If Joe Milligan was a book, you'd want to read it. You couldn't put that book down."
Jon Pucket was Joe's fraternity brother when he went to the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C.
"His character was just so genuine," says Pucket. "He was such a super-nice guy that he just made you a nicer person to everyone."
"He did what we all talked about," says Kevin Bass, another high school friend. "I was able to live my dreams through him, and I know a lot of other people did too."
The Milligans knew their son made friends easily, but they were still surprised when an Orlando man who had traveled to Bali made a post on the board last month.
"I was surfing in Bali during May, 2003," he wrote. "As I met the friendly locals, Balinese and ex-pats, and they found out I lived in Orlando, they would ask if I knew Joe. It was amazing how many people knew him and the nice things they would say. They would describe how positive and happy Joe was and that he was always making them laugh."
Here's to you, Joe
The Milligans, who once spent so much time traveling, will be staying home today.
They have guests.
People from all over the country who knew Joe will be gathering at the Milligans' house to remember him.
Katie Milligan has made a movie, using interviews she did herself and footage of Joe surfing, as a gift to her parents and a remembrance of her brother.
George Milligan has the house stocked with Australian beer, in his son's honor.
They may gather for a sunset toast to him at the lake behind their home, where Joe and his buddies once dared each other to leap from dock to dock.
They'll be toasting a young man who was raised as a citizen of the world, and who succeeded, in ways his family never could have foreseen, all too well.
Michael McLeod can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5432.