Jerry Campbell "Not your typical third-grader"

Subscribe to Corridor Characters

This is My Friend Jerry

Jerry Campbell told me he once got into a debate with his fifth-grade teacher over Civil War trivia. The question was whether Mound City had indeed been one of the famous ironclad Civil War gunships. When his teacher didn’t recognize the ship’s name and told him it was incorrect, he shouted, “You’re wrong!” in front of the entire class. Jerry, age eleven, was already a studied expert on the subject.

“I was a longtime subscriber to America’s Civil War magazine by that time, so I was able to bring in the pertinent issue and prove that I was correct,” he said.

This is my friend Jerry, and he’s currently looking for a date.

I Was Made to Work at a Museum

“My first date was at a civil war re-enactment ball,” Jerry said as we sat down to a meal. Jerry is the Manager of Visitor Services at Brucemore in Cedar Rapids. The job, he says, is a perfect fit for a history buff like him. “People have to listen to me for one hour,” he joked. “I really enjoy transporting people back to that time period through giving tours. I was made to work at a museum. Even when I give school tours to third-graders it seems like none of the kids are too cool to learn about the mansion and the history, you know? It doesn’t hurt that Howard Hall had a lion at the mansion. The kids think that’s pretty cool.”

Jerry shows Howard Hall’s “tiki room” to visitors during a tour through the Brucemore mansion.

Jerry said that even when he was a third-grader, he was never really a typical third-grader.
“I was always buried in books. My parents used to try to give me money hoping that I would go outside and get into trouble instead of reading.” Jerry had recently loaned me a book called The River of Doubt, which he made sure to note was only his second favorite book about Teddy Roosevelt. I had no idea anyone had an order of favorite books about Teddy Roosevelt. “I read 30 books in one year on Teddy Roosevelt,” Jerry said, “When I get into something, I really get into it, which can be a good and a bad thing.”

He had trouble estimating how many books he actually owns, but noted that he tries to read at least 100 per year. Fittingly, Jerry serves on the Friends of the Cedar Rapids Public Library Board. “Most people don’t know that we have the most awarded public library in the nation.”

Like In a Cup?
Jerry inside a porch designed by Grant Wood, at the Brucemore mansion.

Ushers Ferry was the first place where Jerry discovered that there were other “history nerds” in the world, “At age twelve, my parents dropped me off at Ushers Ferry,” Jerry said while instructing me to remove the apostrophe from “Ushers”. “I was there every day. It was like growing up as Huck Finn – I had the run of the place. I took a couple dates there in high school. That really made an impression!”

Back then, Ushers Ferry had upwards of thirty buildings, compared to less than fifteen today. Jerry now serves on the Friends of Ushers Ferry board where he helps plan events and encourages people to visit the site. He sounds a little sad when talking about what it used to be compared to what it is now, “During the flood of ’08, many of the buildings were destroyed, but how do you spend money to restore old buildings when many people’s actual homes were destroyed?” he said.

“If we had gone to Popoli, I would have been talking your ear off about Louis Sullivan’s architecture” Jerry said, looking around the Hy-Vee Market Grille where we had settled on after forgetting that every restaurant in town would be packed at our agreed upon meeting time of Friday at 6:00pm. “This is actually my Wednesday,” he said, noting that working at museums means weekends are the busiest times for work.

Hy-Vee Market Grille was quiet except for a few groups of senior citizens eating buy-one-get-one-free hamburgers. Jerry freely shared his many opinions on types of whiskey and specified that he would only order it from the bar if it was not Jim Beam. When Jerry ordered whiskey neat, the young waiter looked puzzled and asked, “Like in a cup?”

Putting his hand inside the first refrigerator in Iowa, which still works.

“I feel like their grandson,” Jerry said about working with the volunteers at Brucemore, “I’m already an eighty-year-old man at heart so it just works. I chat with them about my dating life and play cribbage with them if things are slow,” he said.

When I asked Jerry if he wished he had been born at a different time, he said, “No: internet good, diphtheria bad.” He did, however, only recently purchase a smartphone which he still refers to as his “future phone.”

“You’re actually the reason I work at Brucemore,” Jerry told me. When I looked puzzled, he reminded me that we had our photo taken by a Gazette photographer with a group of friends during a Brucemorchestra event. The photo was used frequently for several years in publicity for the event. You can’t see our faces clearly, but you can tell that we are about 30 years younger than everyone else in the photo. “I clipped it out of the newspaper and brought it to my interview to show that I had been to the mansion,” he said.

Inside the porch designed by Grand Wood

I remember that night how after the announcer at Brucemorchestra had introduced a song, Jerry stood up and started shouting, “Vltava!” None of us with him had a clue what he was shouting, but according to Jerry the announcer had used a German word instead of a Czech word when introducing Czech composer Smetana’s piece.

Jerry moved away from Cedar Rapids for a period of time before moving back–a story I hear frequently from people who grew up in the area and something that Jerry and I have in common. Jerry lived in West Virginia, Fargo, and Minneapolis before moving home to help take care of his seventy-seven-year-old father who has struggled with health issues. “I took three years off to care for him full-time which did stall my career a bit,” he said. He still cares for him part-time which he says is one of the main reasons that he now plans to stay living in the area.

“I’m optimistic” Jerry said about the single life in Cedar Rapids. “There was one date where we were debating about Grant Wood within the first two minutes. That was pretty great. There’s nothing more Iowa than that,” he joked. “This is the most alive in arts and culture that Cedar Rapids has been in my lifetime, and it seems like it is getting better every week. We’re able to retain and attract young, fun, interesting, and creative people in a way we haven’t before. As I’m attracted to all of those things, it’s a great time to be a Cedar Rapidian.” He made sure to specify that a romantic interest wouldn’t need to share all his love of history. “If she wasn’t a reader, though, that’d be a deal-breaker,” he said.

Subscribe to Corridor Characters

Story by Jessica Carney. Photos by Courtney Ball