It’s birthday time again!
Tomorrow, March 24, is Jerry’s birthday and he thinks he might be mowing his lawn. Surely, that doesn’t happen often. But this year our Midwestern weather has been unseasonably warm and Jerry’s got a large lawn to mow.
Here’s how Bruce starts this week’s conversation with Jerry (after the usual talk of weather):
“So, how old you gonna be this week, brother?”
“Seventy-six. But I’ll have to check with Elaine. I can never remember.”
“You’re catching up to the old guy (Duane). And now, this week we get to talk about the runt.”
Which makes everyone laugh.
Here’s Jerry, about 4-years-old. Isn’t he cute? And look, red hair!
“They always called me the runt,” says Jerry. “I was smaller because they continually pushed me away from the table and ate my food.”
Oh, such brotherly love. And according to Duane, this is love they showered with great abandon.
“Bruce, do you remember the day Jerry was born? We were tossed out of the house. It was cold outside and we were mad, so we stood there throwing rocks at the house,” says Duane.
But that’s okay. As the story goes, all was well inside the house as the boys’ Aunt Laura assisted the intoxicated, old doctor H.M. Smith to deliver Gladys’ third baby boy.
So Jerry may have had a “rocky” start. He may have been small. And for many years of his childhood he may have missed out on the “good influence” of his older brothers. But he certainly didn’t lack for adventures of his own.
Here’s a picture of the boys’ Grandma Maggie and her second husband, James (JR) Adams, (remember Jerry lived with them until he was 12). Take notice of that white building in the upper right corner. It’s a grain elevator.
“The farmers would bring stuff there and get it ground for their animals,” says Jerry. “My buddy Vern and I used to go there at night. There was a crawl space underneath, about three feet high, and a lot of grain would filter down through the floor. It was full of rats. We would climb in there with our flashlights and BB guns and shoot rats. It was really fun.”
In spite of this UN-appetizing story, it’s important to note that food is a topic that always comes up when talking about Jerry (his wife says anyone who eats with him wonders how he can be so skinny).
This takes us to Elaine.
At a junior high dance, Jerry met this cute girl named Elaine Hotchkin, and from then on life was never the same. He and Elaine dated through junior high, senior high and college—how’s that for longtime sweethearts!
Jerry & Elaine, 1951
“I would check with both moms (his and Elaine’s) to see what they were having for dinner. Then I’d take my pick,” says Jerry. “Elaine’s mom was a real good cook.”
And what’s this? Jerry’s report card? It’s been said Gladys didn’t try to raise brain surgeons. Obviously, she didn’t overshoot her expectations. Yet, in spite of this illustrious academic career, Jerry did go on to college.
“I remember in the 10th or 11th grade, I was talking to an older guy at Benny’s, and he was asking what I wanted to do,” says Jerry. “I was kind of interested in carpentry.”
The man agreed Jerry would always have work in carpentry, but if he went to college he would have more options later if he changed his mind. So after graduating high school in 1954, Jerry then went to Michigan State College (now MSU). Initially, he studied conservation.
“During my freshman year of college, they had a bunch of people come in that worked for the conservation department,” says Jerry. “I heard that when everyone else was hunting and fishing, you’d have to be working, and job opportunities didn’t look that good. So I switched over to education.”
I wondered what attending college was like back then—like how much was tuition and how did Jerry pay for it?
“I lived at home with mom and commuted back and forth because it wasn’t very far,” says Jerry. “Back then I could make enough money in summer working at the Capital City Lumber Yard—I worked in the mill room—I could make enough to pay for my books and tuition.”
Get this: Tuition then was $55 for all the credits you could handle.
While Jerry went to college, Elaine worked as a payroll clerk for the Lansing School Board. On June 22, 1957, before Jerry’s senior year, they were married.
Jerry graduated in 1958 with a bachelor of science degree in education. He’s had an interesting career teaching everything from shop, industrial arts, state and world history, and science, to 7-12th grade students.
His first teaching position was at Lyons-Muir, northwest of Lansing, and his salary was $4200. From there, he taught in Paw Paw, Lake Fenton, and finally at Waverly, where he taught for 24 years before retiring in 1989.
During all these years of teaching, Jerry and Elaine’s daughters Jerri Lynn and Jenny were born—Jerri Lynn on March 21, 1959, and Jenny on August 9, 1961. And in 1965, the family bought a big farmhouse on 33 acres in rural, northwest Lansing.
“It was exciting for us and the girls to be out in the country,” says Jerry. “We had pigs and cattle. We had a pony that was smarter than we were. We called him Chocolate Drop because of the things he left behind in the field.”
Jerry and Elaine’s daughters feel the same. Of course, what they write about Jerry says so much more than anything I’ve written. So let’s take a look.
When I was a kid I used to brag to my friends “MY dad can fix ANYTHING!” It was a perfectly legitimate brag as he really can fix anything. I also used to irritate my friends by countering things their comments with “well, MY dad says…” and “MY dad knows everything!” Now that might have been a slight exaggeration (at least at that early point in his life) but it certainly seemed like he knew everything. Other people were always coming to him for advice, he could answer all sorts of questions and explain all kinds of things, and even get family members out of scrapes.
My dad also knew how to play all kinds of wonderfully fun things. He was always a lot of fun. He put on magic shows, entertained people with his silly antics and jokes, ran around outside playing kick the can after dark, and spent a lot of time on the floor timing my sister and I in wrestling matches. He was always coming up with ideas for projects to throw ourselves into like shooting a frame-by-frame movie of us kids scooting around on our bottoms pretending to be race car drivers.
Both my parents made growing up a lot of fun. We were allowed to do all kinds of things—from remodeling the granary into a playhouse to climbing around on the beams way up high in the barn, to camping out in the field for days on end. They were very supportive of any idea I had. They were behind me even during times when other parents would have put their foot down—instead they were helping me make these things happen: running an underground newspaper, dropping out of high school, starting my many businesses. It made me feel like my ideas and priorities were respected and important. It made me feel smart and competent. (I was brought back down to earth later, but it was a great feeling and still shapes my willingness to try new things.) My dad was always a great advocate for womens’ rights. He was very clear when we were growing up— girls should be able to do anything that boys can do.
Some of my earliest memories of my dad are from our house in Lake Fenton where we lived until I was through kindergarten. It seems like he was always working on that house. When I was real young I remember following him around repeating over and over like toddlers do “What are you gonna do dad, what are ya gonna do?” I loved to go with him to the lumber yard and the hardware or his shop classroom. I love the smell of fresh-cut wood and those are still my favorite sorts of shopping.
I remember him taking my sister and I somewhere where there were farm animals and he had to hold us both up high because a mean billy goat was charging with his horns down. I think he pinned my dad to the barn but we were safe. I remember him fighting a grass fire there in the field across the street with lots of neighbors. (That together with our family putting up hay every summer with the Wells family and my mom organizing our little town’s chicken bbq’s has instilled in me a longing and love for situations where I am part of a group of people working hard on a project together.)
My mom and dad always had lots of friends and our house was full of friends and relatives. There were big meals around the table and always some exciting project going on. My dad and Harry Wells were always buying animals of some sort at the auction (experimenting at being farmers as I know my dad grew up a city boy.) They were also always buying men toys like tractors, dump trucks, front loaders. My dad and another science teacher John Winn were always staying up late planning out new ways to teach their middle schoolers science with all kinds of neat little hands-on activities. They also put a lot of energy into thinking up mischevious little tricks to play on administrators and colleagues.
As I got older my favorite times with my dad were when we were working on a project together – building his canoe or roofing an outbuilding. He taught me how to cut in when painting, how to drywall, shingle, build walls and wire switches. He helped me remodel the day care centers and work on my houses. We don’t really do many projects together like that anymore. He thinks I’m too busy. Perhaps if I retire soon enough we can work on projects again.
My other favorite thing to do with my dad is discuss ideas, science, politics, religion etc. He is very well informed – he spends half his time reading and writing little notes, I think! There aren’t a lot of people that like to discuss those things so it is always a treat.
Jenny and Pete’s Wedding, 1984, with Hillary (Shelley’s daughter) and Jerren (Jerry Lynn’s son)
From the young skinny kid living on the wrong side of the tracks pursuing the cute confident girl from the other side of town, to the hard-working teacher supporting his wife and two girls, my dad always keeps things fun and interesting.
Dad was forever telling stories. When we were little he told us he had an alter ego and that by day he was a mild mannered schoolteacher but at night he became Chicken Man. He would make up stories about his escapades as Chicken Man to keep us entertained. I remember telling my friends not to believe anything he said. To hear him tell it, he is part American Indian. This supposedly explains why he has no hair on his chest. Dad also told me that at night our neighbors in Lake Fenton would hang their ten kids on the hooks in their hallway because they didn’t have enough beds to go around. Every time I went over to their house I looked at the line of hooks and wondered how they ever got any sleep.
Growing up our house was always full of people. Mom made it an inviting atmosphere with a nice comfortable house and good food and Dad was the entertainment. From his stories to his magic tricks (glass through the table, floating ghosts, going though walls) he was always a hit. Our birthday and Halloween parties were always the greatest. In the summer we would have picnics in the yard and cool off in the horse tank that dad had converted to a swimming pool. In the winter we would build snow forts, have snowball fights and ride the manure skid. Dad was the biggest kid of all.
I remember at bed time never wanting to go to sleep so Dad would be wrestling around with us causing mom to complain that now we would never go to sleep. But dad would carry us off to bed, tuck us in and sing to us. His favorite was Old Black Joe. We would drift off to sleep thinking of our new adventures for the coming day while listening to Dad’s renditions of his favorite songs.
Growing up Dad was always there to support us. If we wanted to try something new he encouraged us. He was always at all of the school functions and sporting events cheering us on. He has done the same things for all of his grandsons.
Not everything was great though. Dad was always the one to get up with us on school days. He thought it was funny to start our day with that army wakeup song usually played by a trumpet. He would loudly imitate the trumpet sound with his mouth and then yell up the stairs that breakfast was ready. Now, in high school I just wanted to drink a Carnation Instant Breakfast and be done with it. But oh no, we had to have a full breakfast to start our day off right. It seemed like once a week we would have to..….wait for it…….choke down liver and onions. Are you kidding me???? For breakfast??? It was the worst. I think I am still emotionally scarred from that.
Dad always has a big project going that incorporates creative thinking and a lot of old fashioned hard work. Like taking an old farm house without electricity and heat upstairs and lots of work needed on the out buildings and making it the perfect place to grow up. He was already great at the rehab stuff from his Industrial Arts degree and work experience but he also learned a lot about farming and the care of livestock and other farm animals (castrating bulls, fighting mean roosters, training biting ponies, corralling escaped cows, etc.). It was always fun and interesting living on the farm.
Some of his other projects included, building a racquetball court on the lower loft of the barn, starting me in the asparagus business to pay for my schooling, and one project that is still in the planning stages: converting the top of the old silo into a sky observatory. Maybe he’ll start that in his 80th year. He has instilled in my sister and me the notion that anything is possible as long as you work hard and stay positive. That attitude has given me the confidence to undertake things in my professional life that maybe I wasn’t really qualified for but knew if I put in the work that I could succeed.
Jerri Lynn and I also got our love of learning and reading from him. He is always interested in learning more by reading and doing. I think that is what has kept him so young in mind and spirit. When he started to get interested in health and nutrition he not only changed the family’s eating habits (out went the Hostess Cupcakes, Twinkies, ice cream, white bread and pasta) and got us interested in physical fitness (paying us to run in 5 and 10K’s) but also decided to start a health food store on the farm. He really goes all out.
One of the things I admire about my dad is that he can talk to anyone. He told me once that the secret is to ask the right questions. He is great at starting a conversation and making anyone feel at ease. He is knowledgeable about a multitude of subjects so he is an interesting guy to converse with. I think his secret is that he is a great listener and he has a very open mind.
Dad has always been the go-to guy for questions on how to fix or repair anything. My husband Pete has made use of dad’s knowledge on a lot of our home improvements. He is always ready to lend a helping hand and has traveled to Illinois numerous times to help us with projects.
Dad has been the starring character in a lot of my boy’s papers and stories for school. We would travel to the farm to visit grandpa and grandma quite a lot when the boys were growing up. We would drive over to Lansing in the summer or on school breaks. One time after we got back to our house from a visit, I glanced outside and saw Kyle peeing on the neighbor’s flowers. I ran outside and asked Kyle why he hadn’t come in to use the bathroom. He said that he and Grandpa had done it on the farm behind the barn so why couldn’t he do it here?……..Thanks Dad. After another trip, one of the boys had to write a few paragraphs on what they had done over spring break. His response: “On my spring break my grandpa taught me how to play Craps.” I received a very interesting note from his teacher after she read that assignment.
I love his outlook on life and his continual quest for new knowledge. Like he says, “I’ll try anything…..twice”.
And here’s a special word from Jerry’s grandson, Kyle:
I’m Kyle, Jerry’s grandson (Jennifer’s son). I’m twenty-three years old and I work in research in the Psychiatry department at the University of Minnesota. I graduated from Minnesota in 2010 and will be pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology this fall at either the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill or Arizona State University.
Ever since I was a child, my grandpa has always been one of my favorite people to talk to. He always has something interesting to say because he is always acquiring new knowledge. I don’t know anyone else who highlights and takes copious notes while reading for pleasure like he does. I’ve also never known anyone as curious and open-minded as him, especially at his age. Most people are set in their ways after a certain point and have their opinions and attitudes firmly in place, but my grandpa would never let that happen. He believes that there is always an opportunity to learn something new, no matter how much you know already.
Most adults treat children as intellectually inferior when speaking to them, which in some ways they obviously are. However, I vividly remember having many conversations about politics, science, and philosophy with my grandpa when I was a child. He had to dumb down the subject matter so that I could grasp the ideas, but what was unique about our conversations was that he expected me to contribute rather than simply absorb what he was telling me. He would ask my opinion of something or pose questions that made me think critically, something that most adults don’t do with children. I think that those conversations helped to spark my interest in philosophy, science, and academics in general. I’m certainly going to try to follow his example when I have children and grandchildren of my own one day.
And finally, isn’t that AWESOME artwork from Jenny’s son, Ryan? Check out more of his work here.