I’m still stunned by the strange and beautiful turn of coincidences that put me square at the intersection of June Walker and Jerry Gumbert.
June is a recent acquaintance. She worked like a woman possessed to turn a rundown shack with no door, no plumbing and a water-filled basement into a home for her and her two grandchildren. For nearly 4 years she poured dollars and toil into making a long-running dream come true. And that was only after a long journey of homelessness and drug use before she pulled her life together with a singular focus on never being homeless again. And yet just after making what she thought was the last payment, she was threatened with eviction. The guy who she’d been paying all that time was no more the owner than she was and he was gone.
Jerry Gumbert I’ve known for ages. We first met in Tyler, Texas when he was the independent producer of a documentary on the New London School Explosion of 1937. He asked me to be the reporter and writer on it and it started a friendship that has lasted all this time. We worked together at KLTV in Tyler and then KFOR in Oklahoma City before Jerry became the head of Audience Research and Development (ARD), one of the largest television research and consulting firms in the country. Jerry was born in Jackson, Michigan and raised in the Detroit suburbs and he gets back here pretty regularly to see his beloved Wolverines play football. And as luck would have it, one Sunday morning sitting at home in Ft. Worth, Texas, Jerry came across an NBC News story about June Walker and her horrible plight. As Jerry finished reading, he was wiping tears from his eyes at the horrendous unfairness of it all. And pretty much on the spot, he decided to do something about it.
Just about the time that NBC reported that an anonymous Texan was stepping forward to pay for the house and give it to June, I was in Texas at a children’s book conference and got together for dinner with Jerry. Eventually, the conversation came around to June and Jerry’s decision to pay the $45,000 so that June could keep (and own outright) her house.
I couldn’t believe it. The anonymous Texan was the guy I had known since our days in Tyler, Texas?
I certainly understood his desire to be anonymous. In fact, if I hadn’t happened to be in Ft. Worth and we hadn’t happened to be sitting there at Mi Cocina, I doubt Jerry would have even mentioned it to me. But as we sat and talked about the day that he would eventually come to Detroit to meet June in person, I wondered if he might be able to do a little more good by not remaining anonymous. Jerry will tell you that life has been good to him, that he’s been blessed. But he’s never loved giving money to foundations or big charities because it made it really hard to see his gifts at work. He’d never done it before but it seemed to Jerry this was a much more direct way of giving, a much more targeted and specific approach at problem solving, and I imagined that others to whom life has been good might be moved by Jerry’s gesture to act in similar fashion.
So after dispatching the idea of blurring his face or altering his voice and hiding his identity, Jerry Gumbert came to Detroit to meet June and see the home that he owned for just a little while in turning it over to her. (This makes it sound far easier than it was; the paperwork and dealing with the actual (corporate) owner of the house in Florida took months, especially as the price seemed to jump as word spread that a donor was stepping in. Funny how that works, isn’t it?)
But I’m grateful to Jerry and grateful to June for giving me a wonderful afternoon. Watching them embrace on the sidewalk in front of June’s house put tears in my eyes, which means I guess I had finally caught up to Jerry.
I don’t get to cover enough stories like this one. June and her grandchildren have their house, and she told Jerry just before he left that his gift would mean that one day those two beautiful kids would be going to college. That’s a gift that keeps on giving. And I’m hoping that others will be inspired not by the size of Jerry’s gift, but by his approach.
Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to solve the problem.