When asked to reflect on the life of my Uncle Jerry, it was difficult knowing where to start as there are many, many stories to tell. These stories could be written, but that would never compare to how Jerry told stories. Maybe you’ve heard the story of “the stupid rock” – invented for his paddle board adventure across Torch Lake for no reason at all and how “stupid” an idea that was. His nieces and nephews could tell you about some of the best memories – the epic fireworks displays he emceed at the Kowalewski’s house back in the mid ’80s in Sterling Heights – neighbors would hang over the fence as he oooh’d and aaah’d over smoke bombs, snakes, and small noisemakers that did nothing more than emit sparks. Most could kinda, sorta tell you about the famed C.R.S. group. I don’t know what they did, but it sounded way fun. The story of Jerry that one time at the Rathskellar, when he had one-too-many, and peaked out from behind the curtain in the coat room – I’m not sure exactly what that story is, but when Uncle Walt tells it, he cries laughing. I could spend as long telling you about his well-organized slideshows as it took to actually sit through them …each slide shown with a fascinating bit of history or trivia. Or how, for the last 10 years or so, at our family Christmas parties, whenever Uncle Walt pulled a card from the deck signaling the next person to pick a gift in our marathon White Elephant game, Uncle Jerry would triumphantly raise his hand as if he had the card. A book should be written about the Bill and Jerry adventures.
Everybody loved hearing Jerry tell a story, or they have a great Jerry story. It has been great hearing them and my only wish is to eventually hear them all. Truth be told, whenever I tell a story, my goal is to tell it like Uncle Jerry told stories. When I tell jokes, I wish I could tell it and use a perfectly silly Swedish or German accent. My favorite was always Jerry recanting the time when his brother, Roger, dug up an old, dried-out septic tank and thought it was a little bomb shelter. Told like that, it’s kinda boring (and I’m told untrue). But when Uncle Jerry told that story, I remember laughing to the point of tears.
Yes, there are many great Jerry stories, and in the days surrounding his passing, we all heard so, so many. However, as I sat down to write something, it was like there wasn’t that one, single story that said it all. And yet, there’s so much to say.
When Uncle Jerry walked into a room, the whole room was better and brighter. A party wasn’t a party until Jerry got there. He was bigger than life. I sent text messages back and forth with my cousin Jim, and he put it this way . . .
“… there was something in Jerry that couldn’t be contained in that 5 foot 6 body.”
We saw Jerry as the life-of-the-party and star-of-the-show. Maybe when you think of him, you think he was always on stage. But he wasn’t. That guy who seemed as if he reveled in being the center-of-attention, well, he had a special kind of magic. He made you, me, and everyone else the center-of-attention.
Maybe you don’t believe me how Uncle Jerry made everyone feel special. Look at it this way …if I asked for a show of hands if Lou, Walt, Roger, Bill, or Larry thought they were his favorite brother or brother-in-law, my guess is five hands would go up. If I asked for a show of hands from Sandy, Debbie, Janet 1, Janet 2, or Margo if they thought they were his favorite sister-in-law …again …every hand would raise. Or if I asked the Grandkids, “which of you was Grandpa Jerry’s favorite?” They each would think they were. Or his friends from high school and from every job (Read a reflection from friend Jerry Hope here). Everyone would probably say, yes, Jerry and I were a little closer than everyone else. If I asked the nieces and nephews, “which of us was his favorite?” We’d all raise our hands. Naturally, of all the cousins, I was his favorite. Obviously. I mean …no …he didn’t come out and tell me, directly, that I was his favorite. But my Uncle Jerry made me feel special. Deep down, I knew. Well, what I really knew is that he didn’t have a favorite brother, sister-in-law, niece, nephew, friend, or grandchild, because he loved everyone with all his heart …it didn’t matter. He made me feel like I was his favorite. And you felt like his favorite. And that was his gift.
That’s the story of Jerry, which tops any hilarious story he ever told.
But …wait …I apologize. Uncle Jerry did have one favorite person. I can say this without any doubt. His favorite person in the world was my Aunt Denise. I know I’m a better husband and better at being married for having watched him in action as a husband. I can look and say, “oh hey, that’s how a marriage and love works.” It’s a beautiful thing. So, just imagine. If he made us all feel special and like the most important person in his world, I can’t even imagine what it was like to actually be the most special person in the world to him.
Salt and pepper. Sweet and sour. Peanut butter and jelly. Jerry and Denise. Things that just go together.
I am going to share a personal story. This was something I was going to leave out, but then I heard so many others say something similar, and felt this wasn’t my story, but everyone had a story like this. Hopefully, you can all relate.
In late 2012, I resigned and left a 15 year career in radio to “chase a pile of cash” (as I describe it, now). I reasoned, hey, I’m a “sales guy.” I can sell anything. I’ll go sell scrap yard security systems and make money.” So there I was, getting very close to landing some big deals and very close to counting some big piles of money, but I was miserable. Going to work and traveling was like torture. I pulled my Uncle Jerry aside up at Torch Lake thinking he’d give me a pep talk on sticking with a job I hated. I assumed, I guess, that a career Engineer would know exactly what a boring job looks and feels like. Instead he said…
“I always enjoyed my job. Being presented with a problem. Finding a solution. Asking questions. Finding answers.”
And here I thought a guy who played guitar, banjo, and told great jokes might have a deep-seeded, long-dead dream of making the Kingston Trio into the Kingston Quartet. He went on …
“…isn’t that what every job is? Having a problem, and finding a solution?”
So, in that moment on that vacation, it was like a light went off and I said I needed to go back to the radio industry and advertising.
I learned my Uncle Jerry was simply a genuine, honest, and curious person who liked learning things. And for him, being an Engineer was the perfect job for his inquisitive personality and it involved math and science. Hey. Some people don’t like math and science. But he did and being an Engineer was perfect for him.
As much as math and science were interesting, it’s more obvious Jerry liked learning about places and things and, above all – people.
We loved Jerry because Jerry loved us. He loved hearing our problems and helping us find solutions. A life engineer? Hmm. Maybe.
Other things I heard from people this week in the days following Jerry’s passing.
“Who am I going to call when I’m driving a really cool car. Jerry always wanted to know.” -Bill Kowalewski (Brother-In-Law)
“When something happens at my store, I sometimes think, ‘oh, wait until I tell Uncle Jerry.'” -Dave Kowalewski (Nephew)
When I figure out a way to have my Xbox, downstairs, play music, upstairs, because of a splitter in-line electrical booster that I found on eBay at 1 am, who’s going to want to know that? And his son, Scott, too, told me at the hospital …
“I thought of something last night and said, ‘oh, I gotta remember to tell Dad.'” -Scott (Son)
My advice? When you are missing Jerry and wish he was there to listen? Find a quiet spot, open your mouth, and tell Uncle Jerry exactly what you want him to hear. Explain your problem. Ask for help and guidance. Use, perhaps, The Prayer to Our Saint Gerald (written by Jimmy Kowalewski, Grandson).
Uncle Jerry loved us. So we loved him. Who does that sound like?
“We love, because God loved us.” -John 4:19
The message in John 4:19 is simple – we can only love others because God showed us what love and loving is.
Jerry didn’t quote scripture. Jerry lived scripture. Being Catholic and going to church was something Jerry always did. Period. He had faith. Great, unwavering faith. Not like a show-off and in-your-face (Matthew 6:1-6:18) type of evangelizing with hints of hypocrisy. Instead, the kind of faith and devotion where you go to church every week. You listen. You think. You reflect. And then you live according to the lessons Jesus taught us. Jerry lived a good, honest life.
This video, well, it is my hope you love it as much as my family loves it. Two weeks before he was called to Heaven, my daughter, Marylin, who attends Catholic school, had a class project. The project was to interview important people in her life who act as role models in life, in faith, and being Catholic. The project is called “My Faith Story”, and this was too beautiful not to share.
Jerry said so many things there – as if he knew we’d need comfort . . .
“Although bad things have happened, I know that He’s always there to help me get through.”
As for God effecting his daily life . . .
“I make sure, whatever I’m doing, I do fairly and consider the other people’s interests in whatever I have to do.”
As for God’s plan, with a raised eye-brow . . .
“It may not necessarily be the plan I have for me, but I know it’s His plan.”
This past year has been a whirlwind for Jerry and Denise. It seemed like one minute they said, “we’re thinking of moving closer to everyone in case something happens to one of us, so we’re not so far away,” and no sooner had they said it, their Dexter condo was sold, a lovely, newly rebuilt house in Beverly Hills purchased, and then every waking moment they worked at a breakneck pace to get the house in perfect order. Electrical. Lighting. Paint. Gutters and downspouts. Raised concrete. A little motion activated light in the garage just outside the door into the kitchen. A lawn. Reconstruction of the back porch and walkway. The two of them kept incredibly busy. Doing everything. Because, as my Uncle told me whenever I even hinted they should relax and enjoy life, and that some things can wait, he would say, “you never know what might happen.”
And then something happened. God’s plan? Noah was told to build an ark. He did not ask why or question God. He did as the Lord asked.
“Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.” -Genesis 5:22
I believe my daughter’s Faith Story interview was too amazing to keep to myself. I watched it a couple dozen times between his passing on February 2nd, 2016 and the writing of this. I want to remember what he meant to me and never forget how I feel right now, and make him part of my every day life.
My daughter Marylin said she can’t explain it, but she feels like Grandpa Jerry is with her. She just can’t explain it. She says she feels like if she turned around, he’d be right there. I want to feel that, too. And I will, by treating other people like my Uncle Jerry treated other people. God loved Jerry and showed Jerry how to love. Jerry loves us, and showed us how to love. And now, because Jerry showed us love, it is up to us to show others and the world how to love, and maybe this might all make sense, someday.
Uncle Jerry lost his father, too soon. He lost his mother, too soon. He lost his sister, too soon. And through it all, he had faith and he kept smiling. And he kept us smiling. I will be sad today, but I will keep smiling like Uncle Jerry and make it my goal to keep others smiling.
Thanks to my Aunt Denise for giving me the honor to speak at the prayer service and for everyone allowing me to try and put into words what he meant to me in hopes it reflects what he also meant to you. We will miss him every day.