July 20, 2023

Jerry Keith loved Jesup and vice versa

            Once, I told Jerry Keith that my feet still ache, just from my thinking about it.

            He wrinkled his nose and asked, “What?” 

“When you let me bag groceries and mop at Setzer’s.”

Jerry cut loose with his infectious laugh.

That was a half-century ago. 

He knew what I was talking about because he spent his whole career standing and walking on make-your-feet-ache concrete.

Managing grocery stores took Jerry away from his beloved hometown. But I remember the big smile on his face when he had the chance to come home.  Carlton “Kinky” Fender was ready to sell his IGA, and Jerry was ready to buy.

Jerry was the consummate small-town merchant. He knew his customers by name, first name. Keith’s IGA was a family favorite. When Pam went in, Jerry added extra value to the buggy-load of groceries. He paused whatever he was doing to babysit and entertain Alan, Emily and Eric, while their mother went up and down the aisles.  VIP is in that location today, on the corner of Macon and Plum streets. 

The Keith family and the NeSmith family go way back.

I guess the first encounter with the Keiths—that I remember—was spinning on the stools at the counter of The Pig. Jerry’s mom, “Charlie,” worked for Sine and Vada Aspinwall when their restaurant was a barbecue haven for locals and tourists, up and down the East Coast on U.S. 301.

Along about that time, NeSmith Funeral Home moved to 111 W. Orange St.  The Keiths lived around the corner on West Bay Street.  Jerry’s brother Johnny is my age. Johnny and his across-the-street neighbor, Roy Davis, and I would ride our bikes in the neighborhood.  Then there were the Little League years. Johnny and I played high school football for the Yellow Jackets.  When my dad died in 1998, Johnny sang in a quartet at his funeral. I imagined Big Dink in heaven and smiling as Walt Pinder, Alan Jones, Barry Bryant and Johnny sang the Statler Brothers’ powerhouse “This Old House.”

Jerry’s brother Nubbin sold Pam and me our first house without wheels on it. The old Presbyterian manse on Brunswick Street was Alan’s and Emily’s first home. By the time Eric came in 1979, we needed more space.  Nubbin sold us the Ninth Street house that his and Jerry’s Uncle Red had built.

After my dad died, Jerry’s sisters, Jean and JoAnn, were angels on earth, lighting on Mother’s shoulders. They did more—much more—than just keep her house clean. They embraced her.  When we had to move Mother to Athens, Jean and JoAnn would visit her there.  If you asked Sandy, Sheila and me, we’d vote the duo into sainthood status. If it was possible, they loved “Mrs. Margie” as much as we did.   

Besides being a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great-grandfather and a step-great-great-grandfather, Jerry was a bona fide sports enthusiast.  As a member of the 1954 state football team, he was inducted into the Wayne County Sports Hall of Fame. Jerry lettered in football, baseball and track. And if there had been a JHS golf team, he would have put that letter on his jacket, too. Golf was one of his great passions. Jerry’s line of friends—made on the links—would stretch throughout Pine Forest’s course.

If Jerry Keith was your friend, you had an inseparable, fun-loving friend.

An observer called Jerry’s service an “Old Jesup funeral.”

Jerry loved Jesup.

And Jesup loved Jerry.

I can still hear Jerry laughing about my aching feet.

But now, Jesup hearts are aching.