At 98, ex-Mt. Airy WWII vet still loves old students

by Len Lear
Posted 5/27/21

Every two months Gene Kerrick sends a newsletter to 28 of his former students and 50 people in toto, who obviously enjoy hearing from him.

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At 98, ex-Mt. Airy WWII vet still loves old students

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I recently received an email from a Mt. Airy resident, Amy Cohen, who suggested that I do an article on Gene Kerrick, who now lives with his twin daughters, “who were a year behind me at Friends Select School (FSS),” in the Poconos, although he previously lived at two West Mt. Airy locations, first at 332 W. Hortter St. and then at 644 W. Ellet St., for a combined 32 years. Kerrick started teaching, mainly history, at FSS in 1957 and retired in 1987. “We bought the Ellet Street house in 1965 for $13,500,” Kerrick said, “and sold it for $106,000. It sold within a week.”

One of the reasons Kerrick would make a fascinating subject for an article, Cohen insisted, is his age. “I turned 98 in November,” he said last week. “My mother lived to 105. I am using a walker totally now. My hands have started aching. Otherwise, I am in good health. I have had diabetes for 20 years, but I am not on insulin.”

Every two months Kerrick sends a newsletter to 28 of his former students and 50 people in toto, who obviously enjoy hearing from him. His life would clearly make a wonderful memoir of 200 or 300 pages, but alas, I have much less space than that, and it is essentially impossible to sum up his long life in so few words.

“The thing I hated most about teaching,” he said, “was correcting papers, but the greatest joy was contact with my students. The student body at FSS was very diverse and provided much fun and delight.”

Kerrick's wife of almost 50 years, Ginnie, died Feb. 10, 2011, at age 87. Their daughters, Martha Elizabeth and Margaret Ellen, are now 56. “Ginnie and I were fortunate as we were in our 40s when they arrived,” Gene said. “My life has been that of a hermit for most of this pandemic ... A neighbor brings church-related documents once a month. I get out for medical appointments and hair cuts.

“Otherwise, my human contacts have been mostly limited to my twin daughters, who take wonderful care of me … The hardest thing I have ever had to do in life was propose. I was going to be a confirmed bachelor when two relatives pointed out that my future wife and I enjoyed several things in common such as reading, going to plays and eating lamb chops.”

When asked what was the best advice he has ever received, Gene said, “That was from a favorite aunt. I had been doing graduate work at Berkeley, Wisconsin and Penn when she suggested I put my learning to work by teaching. I applied for a job at FSS but was turned down. I re-applied the next year and was accepted.”
Kerrick was born in San Mateo, California, although his father was originally from the small village of Stoddartsville in the Poconos. His father ran a small town restaurant in Half Moon Bay, described in a mystery novel as a "small, jerkwater fishing and farming village 30 miles south of San Francisco."

In his long life, Kerrick might be most proud of his military service during World War II. He was sent to Japanese Language School in Boulder, Colorado, for 14 months starting in May of 1943. After that he worked at the Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean Area, which collected intelligence for the Navy fleet.

“Our basic job was to translate captured Japanese documents,” Kerrick said. “Since the U.S. Navy began the war with only charts from Captain Cook’s voyages in the 18th century, the captured documents about the various islands were invaluable. I learned that the Japanese did not blow up a hydrographic vessel at Kwajalein and also were not able to destroy secret documents in the sunken cruiser Nachi in Manila harbor. Both of these were incredibly helpful discoveries.

“One night we spent 12 hours assembling booklets with basic intelligence for use by the fleet. One was on Iwo Jima, part of Japan, for an air attack … There were two occasions in which I came somewhat close to death during my assignment with the squadron, one much more than the other. An enemy plane flew over the fleet anchored off Iwo Jima, but it was shot down.

“The other was much more dangerous. A Japanese corporal was brought aboard as a captive. Presumably the Marines had searched him when he was captured, but it turned out that he had a grenade in his pocket. Luckily, the grenade had to be shaken, and this man had not had the opportunity to do so. If it had gone off in the confined quarters of a below-deck stateroom, we all could have been killed.

“In the middle of a night in mid-August came the announcement that the Japanese had surrendered. One language officer lit his cigarette with a $5 bill in celebration but quickly put the fire out so that he might redeem the money. 

“Our cruiser then went to Saseho, the Japanese Naval Base at the southern end of Japan on the island of Kyushu. We toured the devastated area where the second atomic bomb was dropped. It seemed only tall smoke stacks remained … We then sailed to the Inland Sea, where I was able to see the horrible damage from the first atomic bomb dropped in Japan on Hiroshima.”

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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