The Detroit Free Press can probably be credited with the first insight given to Joe with regard to exceptional progress.
A contest was proclaimed for the solicitation of new readers. The grand prize was to be a new, sparkling two-wheeler bicycle. Now 12 years of age, this driven youngster had never possessed a bike. Joe knew the secret that could win the bike. He would spend every unused, waking moment knocking on doors and asking for business. This had always been his secret. He knew that it worked - what he could not comprehend was why the other newsboys did not see the obvious. Joe won more than the bicycle. He won the knowledge that if he planned his work and worked his plan, he could succeed. He learned that most people were not willing to make this sacrifice. As he once said, "any one of those kids could have beat me, but they weren't willing to work. They didn't want it badly enough."
Joe's teen years were difficult and bitter, especially at home. His natural spirit and pride brought him, time after time, into direct conflict with an increasingly bitter and vengeful father. Almost regularly he ordered Joe from the Gerard home. From the age of 14, Joe spent many of his nights sleeping in boxcars at the Grand Trunk Railroad yards, located directly across the street from his home. In bad weather, he used 25¢ a night flop houses. At this age he was now able to seek more rewarding employment after school, such as dishwasher, dock loader at the produce terminal, delivery boy, and pageboy at the Book-Cadillac Hotel. He also devoted some evenings to the neighborhood pool hall, trying to hustle additional dollars. He lived with the constant fear that if he didn't bring home sufficient money he would have to face his father's anger.
Formal education for Joe ended during the eleventh grade.
He was talking during a study period and was addressed by the school principal, but not by his name. Well aware of the existence of bigotry, but not willing to bow to it, Joe advised the man that he would not respond until he was called by his proper name. The principal stated "you people don't seem to understand how society will be run" and then called Joe a derogatory name reflecting upon his Sicilian ancestry. Joe's heated reaction resulted in his permanent dismissal from school.
At the age of 16, Joe obtained full-time employment at the Michigan Stove Company as a stove assembler. He earned $75 weekly, his greatest earnings thus far, even though it required 12-hour days, six days a week.
He then went to work as an assistant to a fruit and vegetable vendor who merchandised his goods on the east side of Detroit from the back of a truck. He enjoyed the outdoor work and was proud of his sales ability, but he realized one day that there was no future in this pursuit.
Dispirited and aimless, Joe joined the United States Army Infantry at the age of 18. Ninety seven days later, at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Joe fell from the rear of a speeding military vehicle and badly injured his back. He was given an honorable discharge after admitting to previously injuring his back diving for the school swimming team.
During the next two years, Joe would move from one unsatisfactory job to another, constantly frustrated with the belief that his lack of education kept him from all but manual labor.
He was often discouraged, but never gave up hope. He felt that somewhere in the world there was a place for him. He had the good fortune to meet Mr. Abraham Saperstein, a building contractor. Mr. Saperstein, a warm, generous, and understanding man, became his father surrogate when he invited Joe to enter the building business with the pledge that he would teach Joe everything he knew. He'd finally found his niche in life. The relationship between Joe and Mr. Saperstein grew over the years until his dear old friend retired and turned over the business to Joe.
Joe contracted to build a number of private homes in a Detroit subdivision. He accepted the word of a real estate speculator that the area was to have a sewer system installed, but this was not true. Individual septic tanks would have to be installed, greatly reducing the value of the homes. As a result, Joe lost his business. Joe Girard found himself without a job, without savings, and in debt to the tune of $60,000. It was the lowest moment in his life.
The next year Joe would find himself in an endless struggle trying to recover his losses and his ego. Things would finally hit rock bottom when June Girard tearfully told her husband that there was no food in the house and that their kids were begging for something to eat.
Joe had been job hunting without success, but on that day he pleaded with the sales manager of a Chevrolet dealership to hire him as a salesman. The manager was reluctant because of his lack of experience and traditionally slow sales in the month of January, but Joe stated that he would only take a desk somewhere in the rear of the dealership and count on the telephone to provide prospects. That evening he sold his first car and borrowed $10 from the manager to bring a bag of groceries home to his family. In his second month he would sell eighteen cars and trucks and was beginning to feel he had a secure breath. Much to his amazement, the owner of the dealership fired him for being too aggressive. Some of the other salesmen had complained.