By John Deming, Atlantic News Staff Writer
Atlantic News, Thursday, November 11, 2004
NORTH HAMPTON — "Thanks Joe," a patron offers with a nod before scooping his freshly wrapped steaks up off the counter of Joe's Meat Shoppe.
Joe Kutt, fitted with plastic gloves and an apron, offers a friendly nod in return, and the customer steps out the front door with a jingle.
It's the day after Election Day, the end of what many consider one of the most bitter and divisive elections in living memory, but Kutt's shop—with its wide wooden front porch, patriotic flags, wooden floors and country store look—is the picture of American antiquity.
"I'm a real believer in a strong America," says the Vietnam Veteran whose customers know him by name, and whose store opened 20 years ago on the Fourth of July.
Most close to Kutt describe him as an intensely patriotic Veteran, a hard worker, and what's more, just a "good guy." His North Hampton store has become a landmark in the region, and he was named Citizen of the Year in 2003 by the Hampton Rotary Club.
Ralph Fatello, commander of American Legion Post #35, has known Kutt for decades and recognizes him as "the complete package" — he is known for both his profound patriotism and love of New England sports, particularly the Red Sox and Patriots.
"Joe is the epitome of what a true American Vet stands for," Fatello said. "He's very passionate about it."
But what sets Kutt apart is more than the fact that he is perhaps the only meat shop owner in the region with a copy of "The American Heritage Picture History of World War II" on the deli counter.
His store, which Fatello calls a "slice of Americana," has also become a haven for local Veterans — regulars with military careers spanning much of the 20th century, some having served in World War I and World War II, others younger men who are overseas in Iraq.
Kutt — who speaks firmly and deliberately about war, America and patriotism — becomes emotional while recounting a story he recently heard from one such Veteran.
According to Kutt, the man, a Korean War Veteran, wore a cap representing his service while attending a speech by President Bush. A member of Bush's Secret Service, a Korean-American, approached the Veteran, shook his hand and said "Thank you for freeing my family."
America and its armed forces are very important to Kutt, displayed by the fact that he offers free steaks to any member of the service returning from Iraq or Afghanistan.
"It's important that we don't forget what the young guys are doing over there," he says.
Kutt can list by name most of the Veterans who frequent his shop, paying homage to those who came before him and those who came after.
Kutt's daughter, Jennifer LeClaire, has worked at the shop for years and describes his work ethic as "very hard."
"He likes things to be done right," she said. "He's just a hard-working guy."
Kutt is quick to attribute much of his store's success to his wife, Nancy. The high school sweethearts were married in January 1968 when Kutt came back from Vietnam. They went in to business together in June of the same year, opening a store in Massachusetts, before opening the store in North Hampton on the July 4, 1984.
"We've stuck with each other for 36 years. She's been my right arm," Kutt said. "She's a super-smart lady and a great woman."
Kutt is also very active in today's Veterans' Day festivities, as he has been each year. A member and former commander of American Legion Post #35, Joe will be involved in four ceremonies across the region and will also speak to elementary school students.
As for the hostile political climate in the country, many are left wondering whether or not the country can feel unified again.
Kutt said he believes it can. And though most debate whether or not politicians are to be taken at their word, it remains that Bush has said he's going to "reach across party lines," while Kerry commented in his concession speech on the "desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground."
Kutt himself possesses strong political beliefs, but notes that in spite of any division that people have in their political agendas, the fact that so many people flocked to the polls and showed an interest in their country's future is indeed a unification, a form of patriotism.
"It's democracy. That's the way it should be," he said. "We're in America. That's what we're here for."
Kutt described America as a place where "nobody bothers you;" where people are free to pursue their interests, speak their minds, work hard and laugh with their fellow citizens without government interference.
His shop, with its country store feel, beaming patriotism and loyal clientele of locals, seems the quintessential example of this aesthetic.
"If Joe Kutt is your friend," Fatello said, "you've got a friend for life."