It’s all about you. Stories of inspiration, hope, courage, those who beat the odds, do what they were born to do, or lead the way for us all. One man embodied so many of these traits. Today, his story.
The Sunday Series 4: Remembering Jerry G.
“He could meet someone waiting in line and just start up a conversation and be best friends by the time they got to the cash register.” – Harold Deutsch
“You could see his soul in his eyes… and it was a good one” – Barry Grosshandler
“His kindness, his work ethic, his smile, people just loved him” – Sharon Gross
There are people you meet in life who touch you and then there are people who leave an indelible mark on your soul. I’m not going to pretend today’s Sunday Series isn’t personal, it is. It’s still someone else’s story, but the man can no longer speak for himself, he’s gone. Today is the anniversary of his death. I’m going to tell his story through the eyes, words and hearts of those who knew him best; the man I was lucky enough to call Dad.
The smile. That smile. His smile.
Talk to almost anyone who met or knew Jerry Gross and that is what they will tell you about him, the man was always smiling and it was infectious. In his later years, he had a ton of crows feet and little slits for eyes, no doubt from all the years of smiling. But it wasn’t always like that.
Jerry was born to Bernice and Dave on December 7th, 1944 and the early years, first in Brooklyn, New York and then in Baltimore, were not easy ones for Jerry. His father was a disciplinarian, Jerry was a bit mischievous and the two found it hard to mesh. Dave was tough on his boy, and Jerry’s self-confidence and school work suffered because of it. The battle of wills continued until Jerry’s late teens, but then things started to change and for only one reason: Sharon.
Jerry met Sharon at Forest Park High School. He was 17, Sharon was 15. Jerry got word Sharon had just broken up with her boyfriend. His self-confidence still shaky, he had someone else call her to see if she would go out with him. She said yes and it soon became another reason for Jerry to smile. The first date was a trip down to see the local goings-on for the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon… the rest is history. Jerry and Sharon dated for a few years and married September 5th, 1965. The relationship, the marriage, helped warm up Jerry’s Dad. Dave liked Sharon, and approved of his son’s choice, the relationship between father and son warmed, until Dave’s untimely death just after the birth of his first granddaughter Alisa, in 1967.
After working a few different jobs, Jerry found his comfort zone as a salesman in the optical business. It was a perfect fit, because that smile could win accounts. “If he was selling it, they bought it from him, because of him”, Sharon says. “They would always buy from him on matter what it was”. Jerry’s ability to sell earned him a promotion and the opportunity to earn a good living, but it also meant a lot of travel. The travel meant sacrifice and once his daughters Alisa and Debbie were born, it got even tougher.
Jerry’s best friend Harold Deutsch explains, “Jerry struggled with traveling to make a living and missing a lot of his family milestones, birthdays, anniversaries… it tore him up quite frankly.” Although away from home quite a bit, Jerry did his best to have a normal family life. Barry Grosshandler, Jerry’s first cousin and good friend says, “Jerry really strived to build a family life regardless of the negative side of the business and always kept his family first. He (Jerry) always looked on the half-full side of the glass, not the negative side of business or life.”
Harold and Barry also echo the same sentiments about Jerry… his special talents which made him a success in business and in life; his smile, his ability to talk to anyone and most important, the one trait so many of us struggle to master, the ability to listen. “Jerry was a good listener, a real good listener”, says Barry. “He could listen and he would get involved, he could get very emotionally in touch”. “Everybody loved him”, says Harold. “He could walk into a room with twenty people there, stay for an hour and know half their life’s stories. He was very likeable, precarious, great smile. I know everyone who worked with him and in later years when he was in management, everyone who worked for him loved him and were inspired by him.”
Jerry’s smile provided hope, his words of encouragement and positive outlook gave others inspiration. People wanted to know him, to talk to him, to spend time with him. His sister Barbara: “His constant smile and crinkly eyes had a warmth to them. He could speak to anyone and make them feel good. He is unforgettable.”
His daughters will never forget. I asked Alisa, Jerry’s first-born, how he inspired others: “His uncanny ability to know you and make you feel special. That applied not only to his family, though for sure they were his core and most important in his universe, it was anyone and everyone he met. When you spoke to my Dad you were listened to and heard.” I posed the same question to Jerry’s baby girl, Debbie: “It was his smile and his ability to make you feel good”, she said. “I felt safe when he was around.”
Jerry was blessed with these two daughters in his life and then four more girls, his grandchildren, Jordan, Sophie, Riley and Emily, whom he completely adored. He was their “Poppy”. They changed his life, much like Alisa’s birth had done for his own father. Six births in all, and Jerry finally got the chance to witness one of them. He was there in the room, right by Debbie’s side, as Emily was born on July 16, 2002. That day, Jerry’s smile was a mile wide.
Miracles happen, but sometimes the ones you pray for don’t. In June of 2009 Jerry was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, stage 3. He fought long and hard, enduring torturous doses of chemotherapy, radiation, and then in late October of that same year, an all-day surgery to remove the mass. Jerry survived the long operation, but just a few days away from being released from the hospital there were complications. This time the glass tipped to half-empty, and even with all the life energy Jerry created for others with his love, laughter and goodwill, there wasn’t enough left to save him.
On November 3rd, 2009 they turned off the machines and with his family by his side, Jerry died.
Just ten days before that, Debbie and I visited with Jerry in the hospital, he had been doing quite well. We had a party to go to that evening, so we stopped in to see him before heading out. Jerry was feeling “alright”, but then suddenly he wasn’t. He got bad chills and had some slight difficulty in breathing. After all he had been through we thought it was just a slight setback. The nurses gave him some oxygen and we figured he would be Ok, so we decided to leave.
As Debbie and I said goodbye to Jerry that evening we couldn’t lean over the bed to hug him, for fear of giving his chemotherapy-ravaged body an infection. So I got as close as I could and we did a fist-bump. He said the same thing he had said to me hundreds of times before, “I love you bud”. I said “I love you too, Dad.” And then he smiled. I didn’t know then it was the last one I would ever see. But it lives on forever.
Until next time, thanks for taking the time.