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Homecoming - A One Way Trip

(Continued)

Somewhere he had met Hugh Thurston and had told him about his "family" in Villa Park. Both had arrived on Amtrak 11 days before. An affordable apartment had been found, and several jobs looked promising.

In minutes the police confirmed that Jerry, now 29, was dead. Hugh had found him at 10 p.m. lying on the bed just as he had left him at about 4 p.m. There were drugs, Darvon, in large quantities. Two syringes were found that Jerry had promised he had thrown away. And, of course, a variety of alcohol. Cold facts left behind by a warm person.

Days passed before Jerry's adoptive mother was found in Malta, Illinois. Then contact was made with his childhood pastor. In California, the trail led to counselors, friends and eventually his new wife no one in Illinois knew existed. Everyone had loved Jerry, but dark notes in his past persisted.

Jerry was a 10-month old mixed race child who was adopted by a white couple in Bensenville. Soon a prophetic pattern began to emerge. It began almost unnoticed in childhood and drew him downward. Jerry would fight back. Attempting to put his life in order, he would reach out. Then fear, self-doubt and drugs would relentlessly pull him down. This cycle was repeated throughout his life with increasing frequency. Everyone who knew Jerry could sense his brooding but also knew how he could be a guiding light to everyone around him.

Jerry's light began strong in the church. The Rev. Tyrus Miles, Jerry's childhood pastor at the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bensenville, saw the early signs that this light was in trouble. "He was the only non-Caucasian child in the school, if not the whole city," he recalled. "Jerry was the most popular kid in that whole school. Jerry always had a big bright smile for everyone. He was so loved by the other kids and faculty. He had a way to help other people who were down."

By the seventh and eighth grades, the effects of racial prejudice began to undermine Jerry's self-worth. The reverend had been disturbed that members of Jerry's adoptive father's family were strongly prejudiced. "They would call him on any mistake ...
because he was black. This is a child that is growing up with this kind of self-image being fed on him!" For whatever reason — prejudice, ignorance, insensitivity — the seeds of self-doubt were planted.

During his later years in high school Jerry began using his race as an excuse for not trying. Miles continued, "It's a classic tragic story because Jerry had so much love inside.


I know he'd have been a pillar of society if he had had encouragement, but it wasn't there when he needed it. I see so clearly what a victim Jerry is of prejudice in our society."

Jerry's light dimmed for several years until he surfaced in Villa Park. By then he had developed a remarkable tolerance to Quaaludes, and heavy drinking was a way of life. Here he found new friendships with "Ma" and "Dad," as many of the group would call us. After a mutual respect was established, there was a lot of frank, open discussion of the problems of drugs and drinking.

In 1981 Jerry decided to go into the Army to straighten himself out. We all knew that he would either be AWOL in two weeks or become the best soldier the Army had.

He loved Korea. His letters described how the Army was going to be his career — until he was injured in an exercise in Korea. He came home with both knees badly smashed and in constant pain. His career was out, and painkilling drugs were in.

For years he battled Veterans Administration red tape for benefits and was unable to fully work and drove a cab for a living. His guiding light dimmed — contact was lost.

Occasionally he resurfaced to call home. The cycles were becoming more frequent, not measured in years, but months.

Last year Jerry joined the College Readiness program at the Monterey Peninsula College. He was seeking a career to assist other veterans with various benefit programs. Jackie Rivers, Jerry's college counselor, observed, "Knowing his racial identity was important to him. He would say things like, The students assume I'm black but I don't know.'"

After his first semester he wrote in his evaluation, "This is the first time I feel really good. This is the first time I've ever completed anything, and not run when I've wanted to." During this time. Jerry found two new influences: Stephen Ruth, an instructor at the college, and Hugh. Stephen Ruth became a mentor and employer for Jerry. But Jerry's problems remained rooted ever so deeply as the childhood seeds of self- doubt continued to grow.

Stephen Ruth had given Jerry and Hugh jobs on a research project. Jerry began to have more problems. Ruth said, "People were willing to go the extra mile because we recognized he did have a chance, (but he) was not taking the medication but selling it for money. I later found out it was probably due to the heroin. Jerry was
desperate! Desperate to succeed. Desperate he wasn't going to do it."

 


Jerry lost his job, and his life cycled again into drugs, including heroin. After leaving the VA drug rehab center in San Francisco he seemed to be back on his feet again, but not totally. Jackie Rivers recalled that he "did not look good when he got out even though he was seeing a psychiatrist and receiving medication."

This summer Jerry married Taase Togafau, a Samoan girl he had known for a couple of years. "The way I saw him marrying into the Samoan family was trying to find a family he could belong to," Jackie Rivers said.

Taase urged Jerry to break off from the people he was hanging around with and to quit taking the pills. "I told him, 'Don't depend on the pills, Jerry! If you depend on the pills, something's going to happen! " Jerry left her after two months, saying he had to come home to Illinois and start his life over. He would be back for her before Christmas.

Jerry's cycles were now measured in days or even hours. He arrived in Villa Park with Hugh Thurston, who described the last days as "one last fling before we started our new lives." Jerry also began a futile search for his adoptive sister, Kathy, and his adoptive father. Depression began to set in, and he increased his consumption of the Darvon.

Jerry had now come home to start a new life but had not come alone. "You can't have your feet in both worlds," Rivers said. "You can't go to your family with a friend from the other side. You won't succeed — it always fails. He took his backup with him. Inevitably, I've never seen it work."

By noon Friday, Nov. 15, Jerry was taking five or six Darvons at a time. Hugh called "Ma" to come get them at Wag's restaurant because Jerry was nodding off and barely conscious. She rescued them in the restaurant amid stares and glares from the patrons. Outside, Jerry awoke in the crisp, cold autumn air. By the time the three got back to the Best Inns motel in Villa Park, Jerry felt that he was ready to go apartment and job hunting. "No way! Go sleep it off for a few hours," Ma insisted. "Hugh, you stay with him and make sure he's all right!"

Jerry flashed one of his big sparkling smiles. He nodded agreement and laughed, knowing full well that he wasn't able to go anywhere. "OK, Ma. I'll see ya tonight." Jerry then turned and walked away into his darkest moments.

Sometime during the next couple of hours he paid the price in full for society's ignorance. Jerry's light flickered and went out. Jerry went home, alone.


DuPage Profiles, December 24-25,1986 • Page 13

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