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October 4, 1941 - April 23, 2021
A celebration of Jerry’s life will be at The Gathering church at 9512 N. Walnut in Muncie Saturday, May 22 at 10:30am with visitation beginning at 9:00am. Bring any pennies dated 1981 or after for the wishing well, as Jerry would be happy the plant would need to make more. In lieu of flowers, Jerry would love for contributions be made to Back Creek Friends Meeting Church in Back Creek, NC,, Asbury United Methodist Church in Greeneville, TN, or to Yorktown Community Schools Foundation in Yorktown, Indiana.
Some men are remembered for what they said. Jerry T. McDowell was known for what he did.
McDowell, 79, passed Friday, April 23, in Cape Canaveral, Florida with his wife of 55 years, Gaylean Joy Mutter McDowell, and his daughter, Tara Lauren McDowell Smalstig, 45, at his side, in the afterglow of one of the rocket launches he loved so much.
Of the many titles Jerry held in his lifetime, he would have listed husband, Dad, and “D,” as in granddadDy, as his favorites. His biggest accomplishments to him were his wife, Joy, his daughter, Tara, and his grandchildren, Madison McDowell Smalstig, Edward Gehrig Smalstig, and Athena Katherine Smalstig.
Jerry would have also listed “son” and “brother” and “uncle” as cherished titles. As the son of George McDowell, a Quaker minister at Back Creek Friends Church in North Carolina, Jerry and his brothers recall many hunting trips where his father would wear a suit and tie under his hunting overalls.
“If I get called away, people deserve a minister in a suit,” his dad said.
Despite having a devout father, Jerry was the most ornery of the McDowell clan, and quite proud of it. While his father, mother (Dorothy) and older sister (Carolyn) preceded him in death, it’s actually quite remarkable that any of his brothers (Kenneth, 82, Nolan, 75, and Steve, 72) is still alive, if you believe the accounts of Jerry’s practical jokes, which included strategically placed clothes lines, pellet guns, cardboard fort fires, ammonia squirt guns and moonshine production.
After a bout with polio as a child that hospitalized him for months, Jerry miraculously blossomed physically, partially due to the relentless and renowned culinary talents of his mother. At 18, Jerry was 6’2’’ and 230 pounds of solid muscle and helped lead the Asheboro, North Carolina Blue Comets to a state football title in 1958 as a two-way starter.
Jerry’s big hands got the attention of Virginia Tech University where he continued his football career, pursued mechanical engineering and continued his pranks. His freshman year he meticulously threaded his roommate’s blanket with bare electrical wire which he connected to a button in his bed for shocking his comrade just as he was falling asleep.
Jerry also helped pay for school through the Southern Railroad Co-op before taking his first job with Eastman Kodak. After a short stint with Milex as an entrepreneur because of his love of cars, he took a job with Ball Corporation in their zinc processing plant in Greeneville, Tennessee. While at a battery trade show in New Orleans, his wife overheard a conversation at a bar, and Jerry followed up on a lead with the US Mint, and subsequently developed the process and US patents for processing copper plated zinc penny blanks.
After spending more than a penny to produce a penny for a number of years in classic US government fashion, the US Treasury awarded Jerry and Ball Corp the first penny contract in 1981, saving the country millions of dollars a year and making Ball millions a year in the process. Jerry’s technical expertise and plant leadership took him and his family all over the world. The plant still produces nearly all the penny blanks for the US and Canadian governments today, employing hundreds, and has released 300 billion coins into circulation in more than 20 countries.
While enjoying success at Ball, Jerry served on several Boards including Greene County Bank, the Greeneville Fall Festival, Asbury United Methodist Church, and Tusculum College, for which he is credited with saving from closure in the 1980s.
But Jerry didn’t live to work; he worked to live. He had several interests, all of which he applied the mantra, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” After complaining to his wife that golf took too long, he took up tennis and became a proficient player, even adding a full lighted court to his home property in Greeneville. This home court was the setting for many epic matches as well as racket throwing exhibitions, one of which took Jerry’s strings all the way to the roof of the house.
He loved woodworking as well and had an affinity for the right tool for every possible function. During his lifetime he constructed and finished tables, chairs, bookcases, beds, shelves, changing tables, cabinets, end tables, bowls, vases, rocking horses, and jewelry boxes for family, neighbors, and any friend who asked. In his later years, he even learned to turn wood baseball bats, and built and donated many items to charity auctions, each with the brand burned into the piece saying, “Hand Crafted by Jerry T. McDowell.”
Jerry also loved engines, both of the antique single-stroke variety which he collected and used for elaborate gristmill production of McDowell Corn Flour, and of the automobile variety, which he collected and sold. Over the course of his life he owned an Austin Healy, a Mercedes, an MG-B Roadster, an International Scout, a Jaguar XKE, a Lotus Europa, a Prowler, and a reconditioned ambulance truck that he painted red and used to pick up his teenage daughter from middle school, to her extreme embarrassment, which he delighted in. He had recently purchased a candy apple red 1967 Chevrolet pick-up truck which he was prepping for summer rides to Lowe’s, taking Joy out to eat and trips to the Yorktown Sports Park to see Athena play softball and postgame trips to Berry Winkle.
Jerry loved hunting as well, taking many trips to the Dakotas for pheasant and quail, but his best stories come from his brothers and Uncle Worth about squirrel, rabbit and snipe hunts throughout North Carolina and Virginia.
Jerry listened to all three kinds of music- country, western and bluegrass. He was known to play guitar, mandolin, and banjo, and even had a special rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee” that was enhanced by a glass of “water,” and he loved belting every word of all verses of “Rocky Top” with Tara.
Jerry was a man of few words most of his life, except when it came to bragging about his daughter and grandkids. He regularly would converse at family gatherings, church gatherings (they even hosted a “Gambling for God” Super Bowl party every year), and community events and would talk about his family’s latest exploits. If you had anything negative to say about any family, even at sporting events, he would likely follow you into the restroom and ask if you wanted to repeat your words with a fight awaiting you if you answered in the affirmative. True story. Jerry was 70 at that time.
Perhaps the best story about the kind of man Jerry was regarding his family relates to sports and the fact that he despised how Notre Dame was overrated in football each year according to him. It was one of his favorite topics. When his grandson, Gehrig, enrolled at Notre Dame, however, Jerry not only purchased his own Notre Dame hat which he wore often, but he bought tickets for his grandson to attend the Fiesta Bowl and College Football Playoff in which Notre Dame played.
If Jerry were here he would expect you to do it, and not just talk about it.