Friday, December 9, 2022

Korean War veteran devotes life to helping others

By Ed Pierce

When Jerry Black closes his eyes, he can still picture the engine room of the USS Johnston, a U.S. destroyer he served on for four years during the Korean War.

Black, 94, enlisted in the U.S. Navy while in high school and received his diploma from Farmington High School while serving as a throttle man on the destroyer in 1949. Over the span of four years, he rose in rank to Petty Officer Second Class and his military service became the springboard to success as a high school teacher and continues to this very day.

At the age of 94, Jerry Black remains active in the community,
serving as vice president of the Little Meetinghouse board of
directors and a member of the American Legion and VFW in
Windham. He served aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer during
the Korean War and taught industrial arts at Falmouth High
School before retiring. He is also an artist in Windham.
“The USS Johnston spent a lot of time in the Mediterranean Sea,” Black said. “The Russians tried to infiltrate ports in Greece, Turkey, Albania, Yugoslavia, and Northern Italy and our job was to block them from doing that and continuing World War II. They say we chased Russian submarines all day and they chased us all night.”

On board ship, Black was known for his knack at cutting sailor’s hair and willingness to pitch in and help solve diesel mechanical problems when challenges arose while at sea. He was also the ship’s master at arms and in charge of drainage control for the destroyer.

When he was discharged, Black returned to Maine to live with his parents in Farmington and briefly worked side by side with his father at a barber shop there. But before long, Black chose to attend college and enrolled at Gorham State Teacher’s College to study industrial arts.

“In my first class, there were 20 students and 11 of us were veterans,” he said. “The toughest part of going to college was transitioning from the military way of life to trying to study for school.”

In 1955, Black met fellow Gorham State Teacher’s College student Mildred Hammond of South Paris, who was two years ahead of him in school. They fell in love and got married that same year. Two years later in 1957, Black graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Gorham State Teacher’s College and applied for a teaching position at Falmouth High School.

“It was a brand-new school that had just been built,” Black said. “I graduated in the spring from college, and they hired me as the industrial arts teacher there for that fall. It was a state-of-the-art school, and everyone called it the Portland Country Club School.”

While he was teaching at Falmouth High, his wife Mildred was launching her own career as a history and social sciences teacher at Windham High School. When Jerry retired from teaching after a 25-year career in 1981, Mildred was still working at Windham High and finished a 26-year career as an educator there before retiring.

After retiring from teaching, Jerry worked as a manager for senior housing in North Windham and both he and Mildred traveled to 36 different countries and across the United States, spending winters in San Diego, California.

More than 25 years ago Jerry Black joined the American Legion and VFW in Windham and served on a committee building the Windham Veterans Center in the 1990s. Mildred and Jerry Black were married

for 62 years before her death at the age of 84 in 2017.

The couple had no children but in traveling the world, they did have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity while visiting England. Some friends had invited them to join them for a tea party in the courtyard of Windsor Castle for Boy Scouts and teachers hosted by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.

“We met the queen and shook her hand as she stood in a reception line,” Black said. “That was an extraordinary experience.”

It wasn’t the first queen though that Black had met. While serving on board the USS Johnston years earlier, the ship had docked in Athens, Greece, and Black was sent ashore to greet Queen Frederika of Greece and to escort her back to the ship for a luncheon with the USS Johnston’s officers.

And those were not the only world leaders that Black would be so fortunate to meet. While he and Mildred were attending graduate school at the University of Maryland in the 1950s, they learned that U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was hosting for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the White House in nearby Washington, D.C. The couple traveled there and somehow made it through the White House gate and then got to shake Churchill’s hand while he met the public on the White House grounds.

Among his many accomplishments in life, Black says that he’s proud of something he was able to do as a teenager that endures to this day.

“While I was going into the 11th grade, I bought a Model T Fire Engine for $45,” he said. “I then spent $45 more on tires that I bought from Montgomery Ward. I fixed it all up and believe it or not, that fire engine is still running today and is on loan to a museum. I have arranged it so it becomes the museum’s permanently when I’m gone.”

According to Black, his proudest moment came in 2018 when he was honored to be chosen to receive an Honor Flight to fly to Washington and got to see the World War II and other memorials there with a group of other Maine veterans.

“I also got to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and that was very moving and

humbling,” he said.

He keeps busy these days by serving as vice president of Windham’s Little Meetinghouse, a restored historical building available to rent for public functions. Initially Black served as the president of the Little Meetinghouse board but has now stepped into the vice president’s role to give others a chance at leadership of the organization.

Black has also helped five young men attend college, the latest of those being James Mannette of Windham, who recently graduated from the US. Air Force Academy.

Mannette says that Black has inspired him to take on bigger challenges in his life.

“Jerry has been an incredible role model to me in that he is like a second father,” said Mannette. “My father passed away when I was in high school, and Jerry helped me learn things that my father would have taught me if he was here.”

Much of his time now is spent with his fellow veterans, joining them for meetings, sharing coffee and at special events.

“Being a part of the American Legion and the VFW is a kind of a brotherhood for me,” Black said. “It’s a team like when I was on board ship. They mean a great deal to me.” <

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