Jerry’s Life

He had been in the Intensive Care Unit at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, Ohio for more than a week.

The 84-year-old man had been told that his tired heart, and his kidneys, were involved in such a way that caused doctors to exhaust all their options. He learned he would be moved to hospice and that he had only a short time to live.

On the ICU charts he was Michael Jeremy Ketchum. To all of us close to him he is Jerry.

His wife, Simmey, knowing that time was precious and that he still was readily able to talk, said she would phone me, Jerry’s brother, Jim, from Jerry’s ICU bed so he and I could talk to each other, very likely for the last time.

So, when Simmey’s call got me on the line from California, she handed Jerry the phone.

First thing I heard Jerry say was, “This phone is a little heavy.”

And then, beset as he was in stark circumstances, Jerry nevertheless began to speak to me calmly.

He talked about the few days he had left, about the death several years ago of John, the youngest of us three brothers, again about himself, that he soon was going to be next, and that I, then, would be the last to go.

Then he described, with enthusiasm, details of the sumptuous Koback House hospice apartment where he was to be spend his last days.

Jerry passed away there in the early hours of February 26, 2017.

Such remarkable fortitude shone in our short talk, the setting aside of fear, facing the future, or inviting a challenge had been salient in Jerry’s personality long before these fading moments.

These qualities had been part of him as he nurtured a very successful career.

Additional aspects of his personality that he immersed in the crucible of that career are perhaps most aptly expressed by a business associate of several years:

Robert B. Crew wrote in a letter in 1987 of Jerry’s “quiet and friendly, yet firm manner interspersed with a delightful touch of humor. You knew,” Crew wrote to Jerry, “The right answer to any topic of discussion.”

“There would be no Community Mutual” — a merger of Ohio Medical Indemnity (Blue Shield) and Blue Cross of Southwest Ohio – Crew continued, “without the intervention of the fine hand of Jerry Ketchum,” who was Chairman of the Board.

Not many of Jerry’s business associates, likely Bob Crew among them, suspected that the Chairman of the Board . . .or Boards (include Community Life Insurance) had a bit of the “Curmudgion” in him.

Actually, more than just a bit.

Jerry broadcast it by brandishing it on the license plates of his car. The dictionaries insist the spelling is curmudgeon. Jerry’s spelling may have resulted from someone else acquiring the dictionary spelling first. Nonetheless, Jerry’s version only buttresses his curmudgioness.

Simmey, having been married 64 years to him, was so comfortable with that part of Jerry that during his final days, she even was making plans to have that license plate framed and displayed at his funeral.

Referring to Jerry’s dry sense of humor, Simmey quotes a favorite phrase of his: “If you know me, I don’t need to tell you anything, and if you don’t, it’s too late.”

Simmey tells us that Jerry’s reserved image made one wonder if he really cared.

“I know he would never admit it,” she says, “But I can surely tell you he really did care. He cared with deep concern for all our family members.”

And so it was fittingly destined that Jerry and his ever-growing family would be together for what would prove to be his last Christmas.

At some point as the 2016 Christmas holidays drew closer, Simmey had a premonition. With Jerry’s declining health, this could be his last. She asked that the Lucas, Hagler, Antill and Barrington adults and children all come for Christmas to the home on Whieldon Lane where she and Jerry had spent their retirement years.

And come they did!

Jerry basked in nothing less than a Christmas reunion.

Jerry, Christmas 2016

From Powell, Ohio, from Westerville, Ohio, and from Athens, Ohio they came.

Family Christmas, 2016

Jerry’s children, grandchildren, and yes, great –grandchildren: six-year-old Cohlsen, four-year-old Xander, and the littlest — Shepard and Elliana, both just a year old.

As Jerry sat smiling, and perhaps a bit bemused, amid the happy commotion swirling around him that Christmas Day, any of that “curmudgioness” just wasn’t there.

Rather, what shone was that deep love and concern Simmey had spoken about.

This was an intrinsic part of Jerry, one of many parts that over 84 years developed in molding a remarkable man.

But, as with all of us, only some of those parts would show themselves in childhood, adolescent and teen years.

Childhood, for Jerry, John and myself, was spent during the depths of the depression, but the financial storms that inundated many people had a lesser effect on us. In East Lansing, We lived under something of an economic umbrella, and our particular protection was due to the presence of W.W. Potter.

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From left to right: Jerry, John, Jim and our Dad, J.C. Ketchum

My mother was his personal secretary prior to, and through, his tenures as Michigan Attorney General, Michigan Supreme Court Justice and later Chief Justice – in the late 1920s and until 1940. She was a good Potter family friend as well as eminently capable secretary, and Judge Potter’s influence was key in getting my dad and Uncle Larry into the Michigan Insurance Department as examiners.

Jerry, when it was time, took notice of my dad’s insurance successes as they mounted, and made up his mind that was the direction he wanted to go.

But he first had childhood to enjoy, and Christmas time was part of it.

On Christmas Eve in 1936 our house at 1041 West Grand River in East Lansing was highly charged with the expectation of a visit from that cherubic fat guy with the eight reindeer. Jerry, four years old, could hardly wait. While I, a wily seven-year-old, had about decided the jolly old boy wasn’t for real.

Jerry was sent up to bed at his usual time. Not much later, I started up to bed.

Halfway up the stairs, here comes Jerry down. We met, Jerry, brimming with anticipation. He burst out, “Has Santa been here?”

Only a couple years later, in 1938, Jerry had a serious challenge to endure while in early grade school, when he contracted Polio. He had to spend a couple months in a “quarantine” hospital. I can remember it was kind of a foreboding-looking place on the north side of Michigan Avenue between East Lansing and Lansing.

Because of the quarantine, they never let me go in to visit him.

Finally, when he was allowed to come home, he had to leave everything he’d had there behind. But the polio had not seemed to have done any damage and didn’t show any effects in the future.

Half a dozen years later, Jerry was starting high school and getting into athletics. He wasted no time, going out for football as a freshman in the fall of 1946. I was a senior that year.

Jerry and I showed up, fresh from the summer at our Wall Lake cottage, ready to draw our equipment. Sam Ketchman, beginning his first season as head coach at East Lansing, stood watching his would-be players as they filed past. Casting an eye at Jerry’s and my summer-bronzed and fit frames, he exclaimed, “That’s how I like to see ‘em!”

Soon, we were in two-a-day practices, in full pads, under merciless September sun. I remember us, after morning workouts, staggering the four blocks from the high school to our house, and collapsing there in the living room, too exhausted even to say anything.

But Jerry had fond memories of high school football. While still at East Lansing, he and his classmates, among them Bob Campbell, Dean Stoppel, Jack Withrow and John Bachman, were privileged to have Pat Peppler as their head coach.

Jerry often spoke enthusiastically about Peppler, and with good reason. Peppler won a state championship at East Lansing and eventually went on to become a Green Bay Packers executive, helping the iconic Vince Lomardi mold the Packers teams that won the first two Super Bowl.

Basketball was not without memorable moments for Jerry.

One night in East Lansing’s old bandbox-sized gym, Don Irwin, my friend from up the street, and I, watched wide-eyed from high in the bleachers as the coach picked Jerry, not quite six feet tall, to jump center at the opening tipoff against the visiting Owosso High’s center, a lad of at least 6’5.

Guess who won that tip? . . . Jerry. Thus a challenge met!

During summers at that cottage on Wall Lake, southwest of Hastings, We three boys spent a lot of time with athletics. We spaded up a broad jump pit behind the cottage and shoveled sand for a high jump area in the yard just to the east.

Jerry and I paced off 220 yards down the two-rutted road that ran behind those north shore cottages and tried to improve our speed. We tried, and succeeded, in getting it down to somewhere near 27 seconds.

The next winter, at preseason indoor track practice in the high school gym, Jerry and I were the only guys able to clear five feet in the high jump. Our summer workouts had enabled us to learn the “Western Roll,” the popular form over the bar in those days.

Later, outdoors, as a senior, Jerry cleared six feet in the regional.

Perhaps there was some connection in leaping to take that basketball tip, that high-jump prowess, and a constant rise in his career.

If Jerry didn’t fear heights, neither did he fear speed. That was noticeable not long after he had obtained his first driver’s license.

One afternoon Jerry was out for a drive with a school classmate, Fenimore Hicks, on Ingham County’s side roads. At the wheels of his dad’s Oldsmobile 88, Jerry pushed the car to 75 mph in a 25 mph zone, and shortly was pulled over by a Sheriff’s Deputy.

First formalities having been completed, the deputy wanted to know who this was riding with Jerry. “I’m Fenimore Hicks. My dad’s the Sheriff.”

Jerry got off with a warning.

Not long after, in that pre-seatbelt era, Jerry managed to roll that Olds 8 over. Somehow, he emerged unscathed.

Altogether, John and I certainly didn’t stretch the envelope of teen antics the way Jerry did. One evening, after being out with friends, he showed up at home at 419 Clarendon Road, and teetered into the living room where mom and dad were sitting.

There, Jerry tried valiantly for a moment to keep his balance, and then pitched forward into an inebriated heap on the floor.

Our summers during high school years, from about June 15 until September 15, were spent at Wall Lake, where Jerry was stranded without a car with which to widen his his driving horizons.

That’s because my mother didn’t drive.

And the family car was in Detroit where my dad worked through the week, driving the 140 miles over to the lake on weekends.

But next door to our cottage were the Finneys. Their son, Gordon, was surrounded by three sisters. “Gordy, or Gord,” had access to his mother’s green four-door Chrysler. He and “Jerr,” as Gord sometimes called him, just gravitated toward each other — and that car.

They spent a lot of time and miles in that Chrysler, including trips into Hastings where the family lived when not at their cottage. Gordy’s dad, Ray, was one of the top general-practice doctors in town.

Gordy was a near-scratch golfer and in several area tournaments. One of them, I remember, was at Gull Lake, down State Route 43, closer to Kalamazoo. Jerry and I both were there to cheer him on.

After high-school years came to a close, Jerry and Gordy found separate paths along which to follow their futures.

Following a couple semesters at Michigan State, and with the Korean War taking most young men who could sight a rifle, Jerry entered the Navy.

He spent some rough mid-winter months at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, on the windswept north end of the Chicago area. This coincided with my first year as Sports Editor at the Dekalb Chronicle, 60 miles west of Chicago.

They hadn’t wanted me in the military because my vision wasn’t sufficient to sight a rifle properly.

One weekend Jerry was given some liberty from Great Lakes, and I gassed up my 1949 Ford Coupe and drove to the training base main gate to meet Jerry, who was battling a cold. We drove downtown to Chicago and had a good dinner at the Four Seasons, one of the Loop’s better restaurants.

Come to find out, the Navy didn’t ask Jerry to sight a rifle much. He served most of his four-year hitch in an electronics role at a base in Chula Vista, just a few miles south of San Diego.

Gordy, during these years, had followed his dad into the medical profession. On completing some very extensive training. He became a surgeon, practicing for a few years in Grand Rapids.

But he contracted cancer, and died in 1970 at age 38.

Jerry, after finishing his hitch in the Navy, returned to Michigan State and completed studies for his bachelor’s degree. Among activities, he joined Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a fraternity loaded with athletes, and made long and fruitful friendships.

Among friends Jerry and I both had made as youngsters, through our “side-yard” touch football years, was Bruce McCrystal.

Bruce was Jerry’s age, lived and breathed Michigan State, and they kept in touch with us through the years. In 2004 Bruce wrote and published an outstanding and outsized coffee table-genre book entitled “Spirit of Michigan State.”

On a number of its 484 pages it extolls impressive accomplishments by outstanding alumni. On Page 160, recalling the MSU year 1975, it tells readers:

“ Michael J. Ketchum was serving as president and CEO of Ohio Blue Shield.”

Jerry had told John and I several times, and anyone else when they asked him, what sort of career he had in mind. His answer? “I’m going to be an executive.”

Setting out on this pursuit after graduation from Michigan State in 1959, he took a job in Rockford, Illinois, selling Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Later that year he moved to Detroit as a Blue Cross and Blue Shield salesman.

In 1966 Jerry was hired as Director of Marketing and Public Relations by Ohio Medical Indemnity (Blue Shield), based in Worthington, just north of Columbus.

Then, as Bob Crew was later to describe it, “The intervention of the fine hand of Jerry Ketchum” was about to be felt. In 1972 Jerry was elected President and CEO of Ohio Medical Indemnity.

He played a – or THE — crucial role, as chairman of the board, in 1984 when the Ohio Blue Shield and Blue Cross companies merged into Community Mutual. During this same period Jerry founded, and was president of, Community Life.

Jerry served as secretary and board member of the National Association of Blue Shield Plans, was a director of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, and of the Insurance Federation of Ohio.

Columbus area charitable efforts commanded Jerry’s attention. He was a board member of United Way of Franklin County. He chaired a major employer division and was key in helping achieve national distinction for corporate employee giving levels.

After retiring in 1989, there was no front porch rocking chair for Jerry.

Continued participation, as a charter member, in the Dublin/Worthington Rotary Club was a favorite. During lunches he and I had during a precious portion of our late 70s and early 80s, Jerry spoke enthusiastically about projects Rotary had or was planning.

He also got revved up about Symposiarchs (the dictionary calls them toastmasters ), was a past president of the Columbus chapter, and reveled in the organization’s informality and malleable structure.

Those lunches we had together were at numerous restaurants – Jerry knew some good ones – and invariably included talk strewn with Michigan State news or memories, stuff about old friends, and just plain nostalgia.

Often, Jerry would mention a very good book he was reading, almost always fiction. As far as I know, computer keyboards didn’t know Jerry, and he not them.

Mouses, websites and emails were Simmey’s province.

But if you were to “Google” St. Laurence Hospital, Lansing, Michigan, you’d have found where this wonderful life all began.

St. Laurence was staffed by nuns and in the Lansing area was accepted in those days the best hospital. It was there, on September 3, 1932, that Lola Ketchum gave birth to a baby boy. She and Jay named him Michael Jeremy Ketchum.

And on an evening a few days later, when they arrived home at 1041 West Grand River in East Lansing, my mom peeked into my bedroom to see if I were yet asleep.

I wasn’t, quite yet, and she whispered, “Jim. You have a little brother.”

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