He will forever be known as “Papa Joe” to many who knew him.

Jose “Papa Joe” Cantu Longoria Jr. influenced the lives of thousands of Pittsburg County children and youth during the 20 years he served as director of Camp PLEA — the summer camp for children operated by local law enforcement officers on the grounds of the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant.

Pittsburg County commissioners passed a proclamation Monday declaring a pavilion at the Pittsburg County Justice Center as the Joe Longoria Pavilion “for his dedication to the children of Pittsburg  County.”

An official dedication ceremony for the pavilion is expected to be scheduled in the next few weeks.

Longoria served as the director of Camp PLEA from 1984 until he died in 2004. Operated by the Pittsburg Law Enforcement Association, the camp gave up to 200 youth a season a chance to enjoy a summer camp-type experience.

A military veteran and commander of the Pittsburg County Reserve Deputies, Longoria was also well-known for his work at Camp PLEA.

A monument placed in Longoria’s honor on the former Camp PLEA site at McAAP has been saved by Pittsburg County Sheriff Chris Morris and is the centerpiece of the outdoor pavilion named in Longoria’s honor. The monument now stands on the north end of the pavilion, which so far consists of the monument and a covered outdoor picnic table. More work is planned.

Honoring Longoria for his dedication to the community is something Morris is glad to do — beginning with saving the monument that had been placed at Camp PLEA by the Kiowa Roundup Club Board of Directors in recognition of Longoria’s service.

After Longoria’s passing, other directors tried to keep Camp PLEA going. Geary Smith assumed the duty of Camp PLEA following Longoria’s passing, but Smith died in an auto accident in 2013, only a month prior to the beginning of that year’s camp.

In 2015, then-Camp PLEA Director Gary Mick announced that the camp would not be opening that year due to new security restrictions the Department of Defense placed upon McAAP.

Mick said at the time the restrictions would require at least three months for camp workers to gain clearance to the McAAP grounds.

“They wanted FBI background checks, fingerprinting,” he said, along with other requirements.

The Pittsburg County Law Enforcement Association conducted Camp PLEA at no cost to the children who participated. It was open to all children, with applications made through the sheriff’s office. Camp PLEA consisted of three different camps for children, including a camp for children aged 8 to 11 and another for children 12 to 14. Separate camps were also held for children with disabilities and for adults with disabilities.

Morris said Longoria’s daughter, Rosie Brewer, contacted him late last year because she was worried the monument to her father on the McAAP grounds might be scrapped due to Camp PLEA’s demise.

“They needed everything moved out,” Morris said of McAAP’s position. He said the sheriff’s office picked up the monument at Brewer’s request. During discussions of what to do with the monument, Morris said he told her he would like to put it up at the Pittsburg County Justice Center, which consists of the sheriff’s office and the county jail.

He said Brewer agreed with the idea.

Brewer said Monday she felt honored upon hearing the request.

“I am just so honored that he asked me if it would be OK to do that,” said Brewer, who is an Oklahomans for Independent Living Board member.

“A lot of people knew my daddy,” she said. “He would be shocked at how many people tell me they remember ‘Papa Joe.”’

Brewer said she’s sad that Camp PLEA went away, but she is looking forward to making arrangements for her adult children and her grandchildren to come to McAlester for the dedication ceremony. A dedication date for the Joe Longoria Pavilion is expected to be announced as soon as it’s determined.

Honoring Longoria for his dedication to the community is something Morris is glad to do. He personally knows the impact Camp PLEA had on many young people.

“I went out there when I was a kid, about 10 years old,” Morris said. “We played sports and we shot bows and we fished.”

As for the phrase “Hug a Tree” on the Longoria monument, Morris said that was Longoria’s way of giving a child a “time out” when needed.

As Morris started his law enforcement career as a dispatcher, he often heard Longoria on the police radio.

What moved him to set up the pavilion in Longoria’s honor at the Justice Center?

“Anybody that puts that much dedication and heart into something they love” to help the community deserves the honor, Morris said. Longoria always wanted to help everyone, he said.

The sheriff also recognized Longoria’s military service, which included two tours of duty in Vietnam. Longoria retired from the military as a first sergeant after 28 years of service with the U.S. Army.

“He was a veteran and fought for our country,” Morris said. “He gave to the community and I would like to give back to him.”

Longoria certainly didn’t do the work at Camp PLEA or serve as commander of the Pittsburg County Reserve Deputies force for any sort of monetary compensation.

“Everything he did, he did as a volunteer,” said Morris.

“We’re trying to carry on with his legacy and keep it going.”

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

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