“The older brother I never had” is how Darien resident Dick Wharton describes Joe Palmer Jr.

“He’s the kind of a guy where if you pick up the phone, he would ask you to come over, and he would invite you to sit down,” Wharton said. “He has been a part of my life for a very long time. He was a special friend.”

Joseph R. Palmer Jr., 91, died April 10 of natural causes. He grew up in Darien and was a Darien High School football record holder for 10 years.

He was very active in many sports including fly-fishing, skiing, golfing and hunting.

He became a pilot and later was vice president of Palmer’s Market, a 99-year-old family-run supermarket on Heights Road in Darien. He was also president of Associated Foods of Connecticut. He later moved to New Canaan.

Joe’s nephew Jim Palmer said his whole family will always fondly remember Joe.

“Uncle Joe had a big heart and a lot of empathy. He was always willing to listen to other people’s concerns and generous in offering advice when asked,” Jim Palmer said.

Jim’s brother, Greg Palmer, said Joe was a “wonderful guy” and “great mentor to me and good to work for. He was always very supportive.”

Joe Palmer’s friends and others who knew him from the community were also impacted by his life.

Wharton called Joe his best friend and the person he would always go to when he wanted advice on anything.

“He was my number one. He really took on that role — for counsel, and if I had trouble paying rent, he helped me out,” said Wharton, 81, a retired Marine Marine Corps major.

Wharton had known Palmer for about 50 years.

“Joe and I said hello around 1970. As it turned out, he married Dawn, who taught my kids to swim very early on, so I knew her longer than Joe,” said Wharton, a Darien resident.

“She and Joe have been part of my life since then — in one form or another, and for sure, I have been better for it,” he added.

Wharton and Palmer would often meet at Jimmy’s Southside Tavern on Heights Road, which recently closed.

“He would buy me a cup of coffee,” Wharton said. “We would talk about world events and what was going on with the two of us.”

Palmer always asked how Wharton was doing, and was very interested in what was going on in his life, according to Wharton.

“He was the easiest guy to talk to, your best friend all the time,” he said.

Palmer was very helpful to Wharton in another way — with Alcoholics Anonymous.

“I am 33 years in the AA program,” Wharton said. “He was interested in how I was doing and I would share with him some of the stuff that would go on in meetings”

Wharton last saw Palmer a week before he died.

“I was in his kitchen having coffee with him and Dawn,” Wharton said. “When I left, I grabbed a hold of him and I gave him big hug and thanked him as usual.”

Jim Kelly and his wife Betsy knew Palmer from the Woodway Country Club in Darien.

“I played golf often with Joe and his late brother Rocky, when we initially moved into town in the ’70s. I found Joe to always be an outgoing, friendly, yet competitive gentleman,” Jim Kelly said.

Over the years, Jim Kelly said his oldest daughter, along with many of her classmates, remember “fondly” their first working experiences at Palmer’s and receiving “friendly advice from Joe to assist them in acclimating to their new jobs.”

He said Palmer also was an avid fisherman and loved to go fly-fishing many summers in Montana. He added that Palmer also thoroughly enjoyed the game of golf — “and life,” he said.

“We’ll miss him,” Joe Kelly said.

Former Darien resident Jerri Stuart said when her family moved from Old Farm Road to Middlesex Road, she lived next door to Palmer’s parents Joe and Olga — from age 6 to when she was 17 and left for college.

This was where she met Joe Palmer, Jr. and the rest of the Palmer family.

“I worked for the Palmer family at the Noroton Heights store my senior year in high school, where I would see Joe Palmer, Jr.,” Stuart said. “He was always a kind man. Certainly, if one did not perform, you knew about it, but I just remember him as a happy person.”

Jerri’s mother, Lillian Stuart, said she remembers Palmer from the Christmas parties next door “that were always lots of fun.”

“Every holiday, Joe was at the store greeting us with a hug and a happy smile,” Lillian Stuart said. “The last time I saw him, he was sampling one of the Christmas cookies at the bakery and gave me several to try and to bring home to my husband. He was always positive and happy.”

Paul Johnson, who recently retired from the Darien Police Commission after serving over 30 years, said, “What a nice man,” when referring to Palmer.

“As a not very experienced male grocery shopper, I often had trouble finding things but Joe was always able to help and with a smile,” he said.

Johnson said he and his wife Carole have been shopping at Palmer’s Market for over 50 years, “and Joe, Rocky and Al, and now the next generation have made it a true Darien institution. Thanks Joe.”

Palmer’s Market was Monica Lopez’s very first job when she came to the United States from Colombia, South America. She worked there for 13 years, first as a cashier and then went on to become a customer service manager at the front desk in the bakery department where Palmer was one of the managers.

“What a big heart and protection for his employees he had, always receiving good treatment, always ready to help with whatever you needed,” said Lopez, who lives in Norwalk. “He never denied his greeting even outside the store, always with his great kindness and his big smile.”

She shared one way Palmer personally helped her — when her daughter, Isabella, turned 3.

“This great gentleman told me: You have to think about giving your daughter a good life and education. He helped me get my daughter a space in the best day care, New Canaan Day Care, close to the New Canaan Police Department.”

“See you always, Mr. Joe,” Lopez said. “We will see each other in eternity.”

sfox@darientimes.com