The Curious Case of Jerry Reid
Student will walk the Lawn when he is 70
Jerry Reid (SCPS '14) is an undergraduate student, a member of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, a newly elected University Judiciary Committee representative, a brother in Chi Phi fraternity, and quarterback on an intramural flag football team.
He's a typical student in every way—except one. In March, he celebrated his 69th birthday as well as his 44th wedding anniversary.
Reid was a frequent visitor to UVA in the '60s, driving over from Richmond to attend Chi Phi parties as a guest of his friend, William Sturman (Col '67). At one of those parties he met his future wife, Susan, in 1966. Though Susan earned a college degree (from VCU), Reid never did. "I just wasn't ready," he says. "I was a hippie at the time, racing cars, sports writing for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and also working at other jobs. I had a lot of things going on." Reid went on to have a career in the food safety industry and published a motorsports magazine for five years. "But I knew there was something in me that had a more intellectual bent to it," he says.
In 2009, he contacted UVA's School of Continuing and Professional Studies about enrolling in the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies (BIS) program. Donna Plasket, the assistant dean and director of the BIS program, assisted Reid with registering for the proper courses at various community colleges to earn enough credits to come to UVA. "Her team followed me all the way through," Reid says. "Every step."
In spring 2011 he walked on Grounds for the first time as a UVA student. His story has gotten the attention of the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and even ESPN (for Reid's devotion to UVA sports teams).
We spoke to Reid about his life on Grounds and what it took to get him here.
Q&A with third-year Jerry Reid
Q: What prompted your decision to pursue a UVA degree?
A: In 2009, I was coming back from a business trip and I just pulled in to Charlottesville, as I do frequently. I would walk the Lawn and wonder what it's like to live in a Lawn room. I went to a pavilion garden that Susan and I had been in before on some other trips up here, and as I sat there I had a very emotional moment ... where it just overwhelmed me. It may have been a presence of Bill [Sturman, who died in 1984], a presence of a lot of things in my life coalescing in that moment. It was a very bright day and I said to myself, "I'm going to find out today or die trying, if I can figure out a way to get into UVA and complete this thing that's been bugging me for all these years."
Were you scared when you walked on Grounds as a student for the first time?
Yeah. I was scared to death. I went into my first classroom about three days before classes started and just sat there and wondered what this was going to be like … I was afraid I would not be accepted. But I found out about the Jefferson Society on the last day they were holding interviews. I went over and got an interview and got in, and that socialized me to Grounds better than anything could have. No orientation could have taken the place of having those young people tell me, "You're just one of us, Mr. Reid."
What are you studying here?
Humanities. Creative writing.
Are there any particular professors with whom you've connected?
Lisa Russ Spaar (Col '78, Grad '82). Her summer course in poetry was the most marvelous experience, awakening my writing abilities, which were latent. I also took a fiction class with Kenny Marotta this year. He looked at the class one day and said, "I'm going to give you permission to give yourself permission to write. And I hereby grant that permission, so please let the words come out." I was blocking myself at every turn from letting my experiences come and fall on the page. And now I've got three works underway and another one waiting in the wings.
Let's talk about your extracurricular activities. We've got the Jeff Society, UJC, Chi Phi, flag football, softball. Anything else?
Anything intramural that I can get involved with. I played some 5-on-5 basketball, half-court, over at Mem Gym. That wasn't good. There are some things older people shouldn't do. They shouldn't buy shoes that are supposed to turn them into Michael Jordan and expect it to happen.
Did you play sports in high school?
Baseball was my game. I played JV and varsity and also semi-pro baseball for a while before I got injured.
So post-high school you played semi-pro baseball, then you went into sportswriting, then you went into food safety?
I was doing sports writing, sales and food safety sort of simultaneously, and in 1969 I married Susan. I also started racing automobiles and I did that until 2000.
Where did you race automobiles?
Everywhere east of the Mississippi. I raced road-racing sports cars. I raced at Daytona, Charlotte, Watkins Glen. You name the tracks, I've been there. Won a few, lost a lot, and wrecked a few times. Caught on fire a couple of times. Did all those things that happen in the course of a 31-year career in racing.
How do you have time for all of these things? Do you have children?
No. We were not fortunate enough to be blessed that way, and we both have often regretted that. But now we've got a few thousand grandchildren to hang out with, so it's worked out for both of us.
Your story reminds me of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, like you're living your life in reverse.
You know what my nephew calls me? BenJerry Button. He is a great supporter of mine, especially when some people shoot me flak. Some people in the older community said, "What do you want to do that for?" and I said, "Because I don't have a degree at all. I'm not going back to relive my glory days—these are my glory days."
Have you ever seen Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield?
Oh, I've seen 'em all. Old School, Back to School and of course, Animal House, which has a special ring to it for me. I had a big hand in selecting the music for the Restoration Ball. We ended up getting Doug Clark's Hot Nuts. They have been legendary on the frat circuit since 1961. That's my sense of humor, to have the best-known frat band in history from North Carolina and Virginia to play at our black-tie affair … I remember dancing in Chi Phi after a Four Tops concert here in the '60s. We did the snake dance all the way through the house with Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops, and his whole band. They played impromptu after the concert in the basement of Chi Phi. So why wouldn't I want to come back here?
Thank you so much for sharing your experiences.
I love telling the story. The feelings well up while I'm talking about it. It's always going to be something that gives me great joy. I like to say, "Haec olim meminisse juvabit," the Latin motto of the Jefferson Society. It's loosely translated from Virgil's Aeneid, and it means, "In the future it will be pleasing to remember these things."