Joe DeFeo: Man of many talents
Horry County school board member Janice Morreale pointed her pistol at a torso-shaped target at the 707 Indoor Gun Range in Socastee around 10:45 a.m. Thursday.
"Round in the chamber," the instructor commanded. "Raise up. Fire two shots."
Parked in the back of the gun range was a large red Hummer.
The owner of the Hummer is Joe DeFeo, Horry County school board chair. He's the concealed weapon instructor giving orders inside.
The same man is also a ballroom dance instructor, licensed pilot, airplane mechanic, former New Jersey cop and karaoke DJ.
"I used to shoot a lot when I was a police officer in New Jersey," he said. "Even was on a shooting team at one point. So I just decided about four or five years ago it would be interesting to teach a CWP."
DeFeo doesn't advertise his instruction and only teaches friends and acquaintances who are interested.
"It’s something I enjoy and something I believe in," he said. "If law-abiding citizens, properly trained, are carrying weapons, I just believe we’re better off."
DeFeo, 65, is an outspoken voice among school district leaders. He was first elected to the school board in 2006. He said he was hoping to get the school board more involved in the district instead of, as he saw it, rubber-stamping everything.
"People were urging me to run so I ran," he said. "I just think our youth is our future, so I stayed in the school board."
He was elected chair in 2012, and since then has taken heat for the cost of five energy-positive schools built during his tenure. Despite the $240-million cost, several of them were late, but teachers seem happy with the new glass-walled classrooms and collaboration areas.
He was chair when three different Horry County schools won national blue ribbon awards in 2015, the first time that had ever happened in the district. He led the school board during the controversial pay raise, when the board members voted to make themselves the highest-paid school district board members in the state.
But DeFeo isn’t afraid of criticism. He can take it, and he can dish it out.
He publicly criticized an undocumented student who graduated from Socastee High School because she wasn’t a legal resident, and he's not afraid to challenge reporters during interviews.
On occasion, he’s called out reporters by name during radio show appearances for stories he disagrees with.
"You don’t want to be on his bad side," said his fiancée Sandra Lucas-Hyde. "If he thinks you’re wrong and he knows the facts and he knows that you don’t, don’t back him in a corner. You don’t want to back Joe DeFeo in a corner, because he won’t tolerate BS and lies."
Chairing the meetings, DeFeo likes to wear a turtle neck and dress coat. He routinely calls up staff members to explain things. If another board member is talking too long or doesn't understand a concept, he'll cut them off and get someone else to explain.
And if he ran on the promise of being involved, he followed through.
"You could not be a board chairman and a have a full-time job elsewhere where your boss didn’t allow you to take time during your day. It’d be virtually impossible to do it right," he said.
A typical day for him means answering emails from constituents morning through night, and advocating for students when he feels there's an injustice.
"These are things that are complicated issues many times," he said.
DeFeo, the youngest in a family with three kids, has always had a variety of interests. His main career has been in electronics, and he still works on computers part time.
He was born in Philadelphia, where he lived until he was a young teen. Then his dad's job took him to California for a year, then Illinois, then to Mount Laurel, New Jersey, where he graduated High School in 1970.
He got his degree in electronics technology from Burlington County College in New Jersey in 1973, but really just wanted to be a cop.
"To be honest with you, it was fun being a cop. Back then, at least," he said. "I enjoyed it. I loved helping people, I loved the excitement of the lights and sirens."
DeFeo spent most of his Jersey career as a police officer for North Wildwood, New Jersey, before an injury brought him to Myrtle Beach.
During the summer of 1978 he hurt his neck jumping off a boardwalk to break up a fight, and hurt it again the night before that year's Halloween.
"We were on a call backing up Wildwood, New Jersey," he said. "There ended up being groups of a couple hundred kids that were running though the street so we were called in to back them up. When I was putting the handcuffs on not a kid, this was an adult, somebody started throwing stuff at us and I wrenched my neck."
DeFeo continued to work for a month before he was forced to take time off, he said. That's when he took a vacation to Myrtle Beach. The warmth was a welcome getaway from the harsh winter up north, and he decided to move after leaving the department in November 1978.
"The rest was history," he said. "When I first moved down here I worked everywhere. I worked at The Sun News. I was inserting papers at night. I have an electronics technology degree, I worked construction, I did whatever I needed to do to stay down here. "
His first full-time job was with a company called Atlantic Electric Company. While there, he said, he did electrical work on Socastee High School while it was being built.
Later he moved on to a company called Cash Register Systems, and he and his brother bought out part of the company, and they named it System Soft.
DeFeo continued to work for System Soft, which acted as the parent company for DeFeo's charter pilot and mechanic business.
While in New Jersey, DeFeo had received his pilot's license. When he moved to the beach, a friend suggested he get back into it.
"When I was here, 20, 25 years ago, a friend of mine said ‘You know, why don’t you go to North Myrtle Beach Airport? You drive by there every day,'" DeFeo said. "And I said, ‘You know, I think I will.'"
He got his multi-engine license as well as a commercial helicopter pilot's license. He used to fly the helicopter for sight-seeing and photography, he said, and while a state constable, used it for a drug interdiction operation.
He's maintained his license but hasn't flown regularly in several years. Now, he's more into ballroom dancing.
On Wednesday nights, DeFeo helps his fiancée Sandra teach ballroom dancing in a white-walled room in the Base Recreation Center near Grand Park in the Market Common. He glides along to the Waltz, Rumba, and does the Carolina Shag, among others.
Sometimes he'll stop to correct someone who isn't getting it.
His teaching style during dance is more relaxed than when he teaches concealed carry, but his air of authority still shows. If someone is screwing up, he'll say so without apology, and show them the right way.
"I used to teach karate, Taekwando, years ago," DeFeo said. "It taught me to be ambidextrous. You just constantly train to forget being right-handed or left-handed. That’s actually unbelievably helped in ballroom dancing because if I have to show someone the female part, I can usually do it very quickly, it doesn’t make any difference which foot I start off on."
DeFeo refers to dancing as "old man's karate." He's not a fan of traditional exercise.
"I have a problem with exercise. I find exercise boring, which a lot of people do," he said. "The thing with ballroom dancing in particular, but any kind of dancing really, is that so many muscles are used. And they’re using in different ways. They’re used going to the side, forward and back. They’re used turning around."
Dancing brought DeFeo and his fiancée together. They met at the fundraiser Dancing with the Horry County Stars in 2011. Sandra, a professional dancer, was paired with DeFeo for the show. They've known each other ever since.
The two started dating in late 2012, DeFeo said.
"It was totally unexpected to me," Lucas-Hyde said. "I was a widow and in my 60s. I hadn’t any inkling that someone would come along. It really was a gradual unfolding."
DeFeo proposed the next year.
"In July of 2013 he was over at the house and we were talking and he brought it up," she said. "I thought Joe did the nicest thing. He said ‘I’d just like to call your dad and ask his blessing because I’d like for us to be engaged.' He called my dad and you could just tell what that meant to a man of my father’s generation. It just thrilled him."
Right now, DeFeo and his fiancée don't have a set date in mind for a wedding. The two are in a committed relationship, but family issues have kept pushing back a potential wedding date, Lucas-Hyde said.
"We’re certainly open to the possibility of that happening in the future," she said.
Dancing isn't the only musical activity DeFeo is involved in.
He also DJs and sings in his "rich Italian voice" with Sandra while hosting karaoke. She started DJing ballroom dancing for USA Dance because they needed someone who was familiar with the songs that fit the different dances.
"Then when Joe came along, he started embellishing the whole thing," Lucas-Hyde said. "He likes to play guitar and I play keyboards. So, not at the ballroom dance, but at other parties and weddings and dances, we really have a pretty strong karaoke division now with our DJ work."
And much of DeFeo's charity work also involves music. He's donated to the Carolina Forest High School theater and has given lots of music equipment to the youth choir at his church as well.
"Joe is a very strong-willed person and he’s a very fair-minded person," Lucas-Hyde said. "He’s very thoughtful about things. He’s very thorough. He has a very good business mind. And he has a huge giving aspect. He gives to people all the time."
Such giving includes his concealed weapons permit instruction — just for friends and family only — which he normally doesn't charge for.
After finishing the concealed weapon permit class with Morreale, he took off his ear protection and shooting glasses and only asked her for one thing: a picture for his records.
Leaving the gun range that day, DeFeo went back home to get back to his real job.
He had some emails from parents he had to answer.
Christian Boschult, 843-62-0218, @TSN_Christian