On Sept. 15, 1925, a son was born to the Newtonia County, Mo., farm family of Sherman and Veva Bell. Following local tradition he was stuck with a given name from some long lost ancestor that was impossible to spell, but could somehow be shortened into a recognizable (and spellable) Christian name. Thus the new arrival was named Jarrell, or Jerry for the etymologically challenged.
Even though the Great Depression and the accompanying Dustbowl were still years away, life from the beginning was not easy. Jerry, like so many young people of the era, learned from an early age that if you didn’t work you didn’t eat.
Some of his earliest memories were the constant uprooting and migrating to the places work could be found. There were no welfare agencies in those days and the Bells had to go where the father, with little education but great mechanical skills and a boundless work ethic, could scratch out the living needed to keep the family going.
When Dad bought his own rig to establish an independent trucking business, young Jerry would ride along for many hours, helping out where he could and keeping his father company on those lonely highways of the Midwest. This gave Jerry the opportunity to absorb his most important life-lessons: the realities of hardscrabble living, and a sense of the honor intrinsic to hard honest labor. Self reliance became something of value, something to cherish. And once a permanent home could be found, a commitment to the community became a privilege, not a duty or a source of boredom and drudgery.
At the turn of the decade disaster struck in the form of a Depression. But for those in the heartland the economic effects were exponentially magnified by the protracted Midwestern drought now known by its ominous historical sobriquet: the “Dust Bowl”.
By this time Jerry’s family was residing in Boone, Colorado in a large house built by Dad. Although not in the “Bowl’s” midst, Boone bordered on the worst-hit drought areas in the region. Month after rainless month stretched into years desiccating the crucial topsoil. The prevailing winds eroded the soil into fine “dust” creating the storms that could remove the farmer’s economic lifeblood and deposit it thousands of miles away. Farmer’s tools and technical knowledge were not up to fighting nature’s wrath at this level of ferocity. Combined with a global deflationary spiral already forcing food commodity prices down to historic lows, a catastrophe of biblical proportions was inflicted on the hapless farmers from Eastern Colorado to Texas.
Dad’s truck business failed largely because massive crop failures reduced the need to transport those goods to market. But the immediate cause was the insistence of the federal government who demanded he pay all his taxes immediately, even though it would send him over the financial edge. This was one of the earliest triggers for Jerry’s lifelong distrust of the folks in Washington.
Along with thousands of others, many of whom were lumped together with the “Okie” pejorative, the family decided to move West. On an earlier visit, Hood River had struck them as a nice place to live. With an opportunity to work in the orchards, it seemed liked the right place to start over. So in 1936 Jerry and his family moved to the place that would become their permanent home. The days of a nomadic lifestyle, forced on Dad by the exigencies of finding work and a place to raise a family, were finally over.
Upon arrival, Dad settled everyone in by “designing” and building a plywood and tar paper “garage” in three days as the whole family participated. Emulating 19th century pioneer days it was either that or be exposed to the elements! While Dad went to work in the orchards, Jerry started Park Street School.
The early days were a bit difficult for Jerry, as the pronounced Missouri “twang” made him the butt of school yard jokes. But it was not long before he found a skill that eventually put him in demand all over the Hood River Valley. Starting with a cheap clarinet, he graduated to saxophone as he and friends such as Dr. Alan Henderson (still resident in HR) put together “hot” dance bands, playing gigs as far away as The Dalles. This part time career became so remunerative that by the time Jerry was a high school senior he was able to buy not one but two cars. Even in those early days, Jerry was showing his future business savvy because at war’s outbreak two cars gave him two sets of coupons for rationed fuel. He and his group always had enough gas to get to the next event. Music lovers in Hood River, The Dalles, or more distant hot spots like Dallesport could count on hearing the strains of Jerry’s golden sax on Friday dance nights.
Only 17 upon graduation in 1943, Jerry anxiously awaited his 18th birthday as he would then be eligible to join the Army Air Corps. He had already committed to the war in the air, so as summer turned to fall, he was on his way to Ockley Field for a tour that lasted until the end of the conflict.
Unfortunately, the army being the army, he was never given his overseas assignment and instead ended up in advanced Navigation and Bombing training using top secret equipment such as the Norden sight and ground sweeping radar. Ironically these were skills that the “Brass” considered so critical for the war effort, that the military technology imprinted on his brain retained top secret status after the war’s end. In addition the protracted training period scuppered the hoped-for overseas assignment after V-E and V-J day intervened. Jerry had achieved the rank of lieutenant through training in skills that were crucial to the war effort, but it would be another six years before he got a chance to use them.
Following a brief and memorable “celebration” period, Jerry was hell-bent on starting a career and marrying his sweetheart, Jo Anne. That made a fast run through higher education a top priority. Entering University of Oregon in the fall of 1946 he graduated in 1948 by taking summer classes and heavy course loads.
In 1949 the newlyweds moved to Portland to allow Jerry to gain the financial experience he felt necessary to pursue his career. Unfortunately, after two years with 1st National Bank and Securities Inc., another event interrupted his career plans.
When the Korean War broke out Jerry, like so many other veterans, was still a member of the Army Air Corps (now the Air Force) Reserve. This meant another call-up with his background in air combat technology making him a high-priority prospect. Even after the advent of the jet engine for fighters, the old propeller-driven planes were still the strategic bombing weapon of necessity. Targeting technology had not advanced much so Jerry’s training in cutting-edge World War 2 sighting gear and relatively short stature made him the obvious choice for assignment to the most dangerous job on the plane.
After six months additional training Jerry found himself in the bubble nose of an A 26 bomber flying the first of 55 combat missions (the maximum allowed) over North Korea. For the uninitiated, the terrors of this war’s air combat were quite different than previous conflicts. Fear of death or even the pain of dying took a back seat to being captured. The guys were very aware of what happened to P.O.W. s in North Korean camps. And even though the night missions reduced the risk of attack by the very capable Mig 14 and 15 fighter planes, ground fire could be intense and Jerry, sitting in his Plexiglas bubble, was closer than any of the crew to the business end of anti-aircraft bursts.
With two crash landings and numerous close calls to his credit, rotating back to the States could not come too soon. A further six months active duty and he was ready to resume his career path. Upon leaving the service for the final time, Jerry felt the siren call of Hood River willing him back home. And when he arrived, family in tow, there was only one career choice in his mind.
Harold Hershner had been a banker in Hood River during the Depression. Even when the bank failed under pressure from the economic tsunami, he demonstrated his character by sacrificing his own financial well being in an attempt to make his depositors whole. The FDIC was not created until 1936 so bankers and their clients were on their own. The lack of government deposit guarantees that currently allow depositors and bankers to escape financial ruin, literally forced people out on the streets. While most bankers were disappearing Hershner was stepping up; a concept that is unimaginable during the current crisis.
When Harold started an insurance and real estate agency in the post war years, he quickly reestablished a reputation for integrity and honesty. It was this reputation that put paid to any other opportunities in Jerry’s mind. Hershner also had a crackerjack partner/office manager in Bessie Weber, further dispelling any doubts that this was where he needed to be.
In order to strengthen his chances Jerry offered to work six months for free or until such point that he could start earning his own way. Hershner accepted, but typically found a way of paying Jerry regardless of the agreement.
From there Jerry’s career took off. In 1960 he became a junior partner and a few years later accumulated enough shares to become one of the managing partners. Jerry’s energy and business savvy helped build the newly named “Hershner and Bell” into a Hood River icon.
Even though the 1960s were a time of some personal turmoil Jerry still charged ahead with life. Besides building a successful career in real estate and insurance he participated in the community by serving as Treasurer for Hood River County from 1958 to 1962. Through a series of illnesses and mishaps, the “temporary” position of six months stretched into a four year drag on valuable time needed to fulfill the obligations of a full time job and supporting his family. But because of his sense of duty and obligation, he doggedly maintained an important function for the citizenry until a replacement could be found.
Like many of us Jerry was a complex individual. Beneath the obvious traits of a stubborn micromanaging businessman he had a vigorous and inquiring mind. His hobbies reflected this. His love of flying was actively pursued in a partial ownership of several private airplanes with like-minded friends. The wine bug bit him very early and he became one the original “connoisseurs” in Hood River.
History, philosophy, economics, and aviation technology also held a fascination for him.
In 1991 Jerry retired to a life of gentleman orchardist, bringing his obsessive perfectionism to the world of pears. For the last seventeen years he has been coddling Anjous, Forelles, Golden Russet Boscs, and others. Although he could afford almost any home in Hood River, Jerry, being a child of the Depression, chose to stay in his modest home in the midst of his beloved fruit trees. Hard-wired to see disaster around every corner, his version of an annual “rite of spring” was predicting, in his “optimistic” way, a crop failure that never came. To the end of his life he saved plastic containers, tin foil, books and other items that we baby boomers would not give a second thought to discarding. “You never know” was part of his daily lexicon.
Jerry is survived by his three children: Chris Bell, Janice Krier and Mark Bell. He also had seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
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