by CLIFF HILL
along with NANCY FAHNER-HILL
Gerry Pike lived more in the last 10 years of his life than many do in their entire lifetimes.
I first met Gerald Pike in the spring of 2000. Having recently purchased a new condo in the Rockford Hills Condominium community, I was outside one afternoon washing my pickup truck when a bespectacled old-timer with the biggest of smiles on his face approached me.
I was about to be introduced to my next-door neighbor who shook my hand with an iron grip and said, “Howdy, neighbor. My name is Gerry Pike. I’m 90 years old and I just bought a new car! What do you think of that?”
Perhaps seeking affirmation for what he had just done, I said to him, “I think that’s great.”
With just those few words spoken between us, we became the very best
Gerry passed away last Wednesday evening, just over five months short of his 100th birthday. In the 10 years of our friendship, I learned much of a storied life about which a book could surely be written. Time and space in this newspaper will not allow me to do so, but I can open a 10-year window and give a glimpse of a man who was the very best of men.
Gerry loved the Lord, his wife Dorotha (who he sometimes described as a “real fire-cracker”), his country (every day displaying the American flag from his deck), and people. Gerry loved people and they loved him. He never had a bad word to say about anyone or anything. He was small in stature, but had a heart as big as the world, along with being one of the most generous and giving of people.
In 1988, Gerry and Dorotha sold the family farm in Trufant and retired to a new life and a new condo on Rockford’s east side. Seventy-eight years old at the time and a farmer at heart who loved the out-of-doors, he quickly determined that he would keep himself busy on a daily basis (except Sunday) by picking up accumulated roadside trash—including each and every cigarette butt—along Courtland Drive NE between 10 Mile and 11 Mile roads. That particular roadway was at the front door of Gerry’s condo and 164 other residences.
For the better part of 22 years, Gerry became famous to all who traversed that stretch of road on a daily basis, including those coming and going from the Wolverine World Wide headquarters. On one outing, an unidentified good Samaritan stopped his vehicle roadside and handed Gerry a folded $100 bill and drove away.
On Gerry’s daily rounds, kids hugged him and women gave him cookies and told him of secret raspberry patches. He could have easily been the poster boy for annual Earth Day celebrations. He may not have been well known by the movers and shakers of Rockford’s city government and the downtown business community, but on the east side of town he was beloved.
In 2003 the condominium community made application on Gerry’s behalf to join the Kent County Adopt-A-Road program. The county placed signage at either end of the one-mile stretch, naming G. Pike and the Rockford Hills II Condo Group.
I was with Gerry in his condo one afternoon in 2006 when Jon Rice, managing director of the Kent County Road Commission, paid him a visit. Rice was there to present Gerry with a resolution of recognition from the Board of County Road Commissioners, honoring Gerry for his selfless service to Kent County.
Just after the first of this year, the county changed the road sign verbiage to simply read “To Honor Gerry Pike.” How fitting and how timely—the sign was meant to honor the man himself, and nothing and no one else.
Perhaps the one single thing that gave Gerry the most joy in the last decade of his life was serving, at age 93, as my best man in my marriage in 2004 to my long-sought soul mate, Nancy. I don’t know who was happier, Gerry or me.
Subsequent to that happy event, Gerry learned that he was being recognized by Guinness World Records as the Oldest Best Man in history at the time of the wedding ceremony. That record stands till this day. Guinness presented him with an official world record certificate embossed with a big gold seal. Gerry had it framed to hang in the couple’s living room and was known to carry it at times to church and family gatherings along with his favorite restaurant, Jody’s in Rockford. Further honored in 2009, Gerry found his record listed on page 91 under the Human Achievements “Oldest” category in that year’s Official Guinness Book of World Records.
Speaking of Jody’s Restaurant, Gerry loved good food and loved to eat out, probably because Dorotha was a notoriously poor cook or she just didn’t like the task—obviously, he didn’t marry her for her cooking skills; they had much else in common. For years the couple would enjoy the main meal of their day, lunchtime, at Jody’s. Gerry was known to describe part of their longevity to what he called, “The darn good food at Jody’s.” Owner Don Mendham and his staff along with all of the regular patrons of the restaurant embraced him and Dorotha as family. Again, remember that Gerry loved people. He loved a good story, a good joke, and to shake hands or “pump the flesh” with a strong and honest old-fashioned grip.
In 2006 Gerry, then 96, and Dorotha, 95, celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. The celebration was attended by hundreds of well-wishers and yet another honor was bestowed upon the couple. Shortly thereafter, they were presented with a proclamation from the Michigan state legislature, attesting that their love and commitment to the bonds of matrimony were an example to all of the peoples of the state of Michigan.
The couple had steadfastly insisted on living independently in their Rockford condo home, but the day arrived in September 2009 when Gerry’s high school sweetheart and love of his life, Dorotha, passed away. With his indomitable spirit somewhat broken, Gerry resolved to focus on reaching his 100th birthday the following year, October 12, 2010.
Sadly, however, Gerry began to experience a series of mini-strokes. The problem was a partially blocked carotid artery and at his age surgery to correct was not an option. By Christmas of last year, he was homebound but being well looked after by his children: son Allen, daughter-in-law Pat and daughter Grace, who lived short distances away in the greater Rockford area. Gerry steadfastly refused to consider a nursing home.
On Good Friday, Nancy and I paid a visit to our very best man. We found him in good spirits, but he hinted that he didn’t think he was going to make it to his 100th birthday. He told us, “That would be OK with me because I was born in 1910 and, if I pass away before my birthday, it’s the year 2010 and, in my mind, that’s 100 years.”
Gerry went on to reminisce on how he loved automobiles and loved to drive. In fact, he still possessed a valid Michigan driver’s license, although he hadn’t driven in a number of years. He winked at us and wondered aloud if he might be able to use his driver’s license on the golden streets of heaven. Then he chuckled at the notion that he might hold his driver’s license in his clasped hands at his wake.
Five days after our visit, on April 7, Gerry suffered a major stroke and was hospitalized for several days before being transferred to a nursing care facility. Two weeks from the day of the stroke, he left us for his home in heaven. The following morning on WOOD radio’s popular talk show, “Mouth to Mouth,” program host Scott announced, “Last night we lost our oldest living listener. Every morning Gerald Pike faithfully donned his headphones and enjoyed his favorite on-air entertainment.” Scott also recalled an earlier on-air interview when Gerry, discussing his age, said, “Why, I remember Pike’s Peak when it was just a hole in the ground!”
A few days later, while reminiscing with daughter-in-law Pat Pike about the life and times of Gerry Pike, she reminded me again that Dorotha, a loveable curmudgeon, was often heard saying, “Damn it, Gerald, what’s taking you so long?”
At 7:30 the evening of April 21, Gerry was probably saying, “I’ll be right there.”
So long, old friend. In your travels on the byways of heaven you will surely find no trash, but rest in peace knowing full well that your friends here on the eastern edge of Rockford will honor you by keeping Courtland Drive free of litter.