Here is a column I wrote about Jerry in 2003...
Jerry Harmon and the End of the Bench
Many a friendship is forged on the end of the bench. That’s where I met Jerry Harmon in the fall of 1962. He was the third string center on a state-tournament caliber basketball team at D-B. On the depth chart I was quite a few spots down from Jerry but we always seemed to end up next to each other on the sidelines.
Coach Devault believed that much could be learned from the sidelines and I’m here to tell you he was right. But none of what I learned had anything to do with basketball. I learned friendship and loyalty and how to look up an opposing cheerleader’s skirt without getting caught. Jerry taught me all of this.
Jerry Harmon was a wiry 6’6” kid, a fellow sophomore with a deadeye hook shot and a laugh that could fill the gym.
One day a gym class refugee wandered into practice and while the rest of the guys were snickering at the interloper’s dribbling ineptitude, Jerry was enthralled by something else. “Look at that greaser’s haircut,” Jerry observed. “He’s got a jelly roll with fenders!”
It was a magnificent head of hair, but not nearly as magnificent as the name Jerry gave it: a jelly roll with fenders. Suddenly we weren’t laughing at the intruder but at Jerry’s quip.
Jerry had the slyest sense of humor I’ve ever encountered. When someone on the team would crack a joke, Jerry would wait a second, then, under his breath, say something that was even funnier.
That year he had the world’s biggest crush on a classmate named Beverly - well, who didn’t? - and he and I spent many hours on the bench dissecting every thrust and parry in their budding romance. “Should I call her tonight?” he’d ask in mock bravado.
Jerry was very shy. “Should I ask her to the Frolics?” he’d wonder another time. I was the unseen hand behind that affair, advising and encouraging, confidently analyzing every step despite the fact that everything I knew about high school romance I’d learned from “Leave It to Beaver.”
Love blossomed and soon Jerry and Beverly were going out for lunch everyday in her car. It was a regular sight to see them roar in and while she raced to beat the bell, Jerry would curl his 6-6 frame under her dashboard, rolling back the odometer. It seemed her parents kept a close eye on her car’s mileage.
Over that year Jerry taught me many things. But most of all Jerry taught me about friendship. Not everyone on the end of the bench roots for his fellow scrubs. Some of my teammates believed that every minute I played was a minute subtracted from their playing time. But not Jerry. If I scored six points (I think I did once) and came out, Jerry was right there to cheer for me. And if I took a fake on defense and watched helplessly as my man made an easy lay-up (I did this a few times), Jerry was there to console me. And not just me. He rooted for everybody on the team.
Sometimes the guys you hang out with as a sophomore aren’t the same guys you hang out with as a junior or senior. Jerry and I remained friends but he had a girlfriend and I had a car.
The best thing about high school is also the worst thing: you graduate and you move on. I moved on to college in North Carolina. Jerry stuck around here. In the late sixties the draft was a factor in everyone’s life. Jerry went into the service in ’67 and we lost touch.
I saw him at our 25th reunion in 1990. He had married late in life and was now the proud father of two-year-old twins. Life had taken him to Vermont where he was director of the state’s immunization program. He told me he loved Vermont, it was the most beautiful place he’d ever lived, more beautiful even than east Tennessee.
Jerry came back to my class’s 50th birthday party in 1997. He was still in Vermont, still running the state’s health program, with a new addition to his family, a four-year-old daughter. I joked to him that he’d be paying college tuition well into the twenty-first century.
Three years ago Jerry had a bit of bad luck. He was riding his bicycle on a hilly Vermont road when a truck struck him. Jerry’s brother Bob, who still lives in Kingsport, said it was touch and go for a while. “They told us he wasn’t going to make it.”
Jerry spent 38 days in a coma. When he came out, he needed a lot of rehabilitation. They sent him to a V.A. hospital in Palo Alto, California for a time. Then last summer his wife moved him to a private facility, an adult rest home, in her native Oregon.
I got his phone number from Joie Kerns and called him there the other night. Jerry told me he’s depressed a lot. He only sees his family on weekends. He told me his twins, a boy and a girl, are now 14 and in high school nearby. His baby girl is nine.
Rehabilitation from the head injury has been arduous. His brother Bob says, “He walks with a cane now….but he walks.”
I told Jerry our old stories: the jelly roll guy, the girlfriend strategy sessions, the odometer trick. He loved hearing them all.
Jerry thanked me for a book I’d sent him, a book I wrote about barbershops that includes the jelly roll story, and said he loves hearing from old friends.
I told him I’d call back when I remembered more of the old stories. I’m thinking.
Jerry Harmon was a big part of my life my sophomore year. He made me feel, for a couple of hours every afternoon, as if I weren’t the biggest nerd to come down the pike.
As I said goodbye, Jerry had one more thing he wanted to say. “Hey, I love all you guys.”