Jerry Hill’s life was marked by many words, in the form of passionate speeches, rollicking stories and Bradenton Herald newspaper columns that revived Florida’s recreational fishery.
As he lay in his bed at Blake Medical Center on Wednesday evening, Jerry Hill, in and out of consciousness, squeezed in his final tales, gifts and musings.
Grief sopped the shady room. Jerry Hill’s wife of 44years, Jo Ann, sat in the corner, eyes soaked. Love had kept her awake for three days.
Sons Calvin and Jerry II were there, just as they shared hunting blinds and fishing boats with their father. Jerry Hill, 69, was raised without a father and wanted to be an example of how he thought a father should be. Calvin said: “I’ll tell you one thing. You’d be hard pressed to find a better father for two boys.”
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Despite a groggy illness, Jerry Hill spoke of what he loved. One moment Jerry was taking you through the woods, describing another hog hunt, and the next his eyes would close. A moment later, Jerry awoke, and somehow, he’d pick right back up on his story.
Jerry also retained his facetious sense of humor. Elaine Perry is Jerry’s younger sister, but according to Jerry, he was always younger.
“Hey, Jerry,” Elaine said as she sat bed-side. “Which of us is younger?”
“I am,” Jerry said in a low, crackling voice. “I can document it.”
It seems there are a few opportunities in life that reveal a man’s soul. Those opportunities may come when the soul is sapped, or something is taken away. Jerry Hill retired after 32 years as the Bradenton Herald outdoors columnist in November of 2006. A legend, an institution, a writer who identified with his readers, Jerry was done.
I came from Colorado to replace Jerry Hill, and it took only a few conversations for this man to stand out from the majority I had met. I strode to my new desk the first day, where Jerry Hill welcomed me. I had heard much about him and was honored. Jerry shuffled through his books, separating them into piles of those he’d keep because of their memories and those I might find useful. Jerry left far too many books for the new guy. This was my first hint at his giving heart.
The last thing I expected from Jerry Hill was help. I figured I was on my own. Yet Jerry Hill left two phone numbers and said to call anytime. I called sometimes. Jerry called often.
He’d say that because the winds were so strong and would be pushing and cooling water, the kingfish might soon be gone. He’d dial his old number and suggest a snook kill might be on the way.
He’d give me a map and compass of Old Florida. And although I didn’t always deserve it, Jerry would say, “You’re doing a great job.”
Jerry had a genuine love for those who read his column and wanted them to be taken care of. On this day that Jerry would utter his last thoughts, I asked Jerry if there was something he wanted to tell his readers.
“It was great,” Jerry said. “Absolutely great. They were great to me and my family. They made me what I always wanted to be.”
On Friday afternoon, Jerry II called and told me about his dad’s death.
I’d only known Jerry Hill for 2 1/2 years, but I had lost more than a mentor.
I’d lost a good friend, as did many of us.
I asked Jerry II about his father’s final words.
“They actually were to you,” Jerry II said.
That didn’t feel appropriate or just. I felt that Jerry Hill’s final words should have been directed to family. But this is the randomness of life.
I can say in those final words, Jerry spilled his generous heart once again. He encouraged me.
I told him I’d never forget how much he helped me along the way.
We shook hands, and in a quick, powerful squeeze, I knew Jerry had passed on something deep, something I cannot describe.
Earlier that day, Jerry II suggested that he and Calvin sprinkle his ashes on two spots in Myakka where the boys used to hunt with their father.
“That way, you’ll be with us,” Jerry II told his father. “Would you have a problem with that?”
“No,” Jerry said.
“It will be like you’re hunting with us,” Jerry II said. “And if we happen to miss, we can blame it on you.”
“No,” Jerry said.
“I never missed.”
Nick Walter, outdoors writer, can be reached at 745-7013.