People get nicknames for a reason, and for Lawrence “Happy Joe” Whitty, the reason was obvious.
The Davenport baker who became a pizza magnate carried a love for people, having a good time and making people laugh with him wherever he went, including the Clarissa C. Cook Hospice House in Bettendorf, where he died Tuesday morning. He was 82.
Services are pending at Halligan-McCabe-DeVries Funeral Home, Davenport.
Whitty will be remembered as the founder of a chain of Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream Parlors that brought pizza and ice cream to all, and horns and sirens to those celebrating birthdays.
In 1974, he invented the taco pizza, which that quickly became — and remains — the restaurants’ best-seller.
Whitty also will be remembered for his philanthropy, particularly through the Happy Joe’s Kids Foundation that he and his family founded in 2012 to improve the lives of children with special needs.
The foundation was fulfilling a promise Whitty had made to himself years earlier that when he had made enough money to support his family, he’d give something back to the community, he told reporters through the years.
“I have always had a soft spot for these special kids and their families,” Whitty told a reporter in 2014. “The kids go through so much and the parents are amazing people who stop at nothing for their kids.”
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Lawrence Whitty was born on a farm outside Minot, N.D. He began his career as a baker in Crookston, Minn. In the 1960s, he moved his family to Davenport to manage the bakery. Three years later he opened a bakeshop at the former Mercy Hospital, now Genesis Medical Center-West Central Park Avenue, and became its dietary director.
A chance meeting with a visitor at the hospital got him a management position at the former Shakey’s Pizza in Davenport. As people left the store, they often asked where they could go to get ice cream, a question that gave him the idea for combining pizza with ice cream several years later.
After a stint managing three Shakey’s in Albuquerque, N.M., he and his family moved back to Davenport, secured a $30,000 Small Business Administration loan and on Nov. 16, 1972, opened the first Happy Joe’s.
Whitty’s family-oriented pizza parlor in the Village became and instant hit, and he was on his way to blockbuster success.
At its peak, Happy Joe’s had about 100 stores throughout the country and once claimed locations in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
There now are 43 Happy Joe’s, mostly in the Midwest. In 2017, Happy Joe’s became the anchor brand of Dynamic Restaurant Holdings, a Quad-City company.