In a red flannel shirt, faded-blue jeans and carrying his usual wooden cane, “Old Town” Gerry makes his first round every afternoon. He visits bars and restaurants in search of what most take for granted — good conversation.
After this he goes home for a nap and makes another round in the evening. Some call him a “local celebrity,” while some not-so-regular Old Town patrons dismiss him as homeless or a drunk.
“My name is ‘Old Town’ Gerry,” the 79-year-old said. “That’s it.”
His trimmed, white mustache matches the receding hairline disappearing beneath his black mesh baseball cap. Five pigeon feathers on both sides of the cap point backward.
He tours Old Town every night not in search of alcohol or handouts, but simply an interesting conversation.
When he leaves for his afternoon “visits,” the feathers point up at his home, the Northern Hotel, a recently renovated senior housing complex that sits on top of Starbucks on College Ave.
His schedule isn’t as regular as it used to be.
Gerry walks Old Town’s red brick sidewalks a little slower than he did when he was younger. But he still visits his many friends as much as possible.
After his daily lunch at The Open Door Mission, Gerry stops at Bissetti’s for a cup of coffee and a chat with the bartender. He makes sure he shows his face at Jay’s Bistro every time Mark Sloniker, a local jazz pianist, plays there. He stops by Fort Collins Police Services’ Walnut Street location most days to share a conversation with Sgt. Francis Gonzales. He visits most places in Old Town nearly every day.
Bartenders and nightlife regulars all know Gerry by name and expect regular visits from him.
“He has a lot of friends, and he walks around and visits a lot of people,” said Karla Donaldson, a Bissetti’s bartender. “It’s kind of his shtick.”
“He’s in a lot of ways like a local celebrity,” said Chris Ott, 30, a bartender at Jay’s Bistro.
Gerry visits bars frequently, but he never has more than a drink.
“I’ll have a commemorative drink, but don’t insult me by asking me to have another one,” Gerry said. “When I was young, I decided it was useless to drink or smoke because the people around me, of which there were many, led to incidents in their life, which I did not want to be condemned to. And I held to it.”
When he was in the Navy, he was known as “One Beer” Gerry.
Gerry is not homeless, or a drunk. He has no taste for alcohol. It’s not booze that brings Gerry to the bars. It’s the people.
But he’s not out to save drinkers either.
“I meet people at bars,” Gerry said. “That’s where they are. They came to drink, that’s why they are there. If they want to talk to and can talk to me, I will. Conversation is my entertainment.”
He claims to be a man who can talk about anything, crediting his repertoire of knowledge to his education and upbringing harvesting melons during the Great Depression in Oklahoma.
“I was born and raised during the Depression and the Dust Bowl and that has pretty much set my goals and everything else. I knew I was a sharecropper’s son,” Gerry said. “. as I look back on it, it is the best thing that ever happened to me. I never went hungry. I always had clothes on my back. They were not very fashionable, but I always had the means to get along.”
“And I knew that the only way out of (poverty) was to get a good education,” he added.
His education afforded him the ability to “sit down and talk with practically anybody in any field.”
Rev. Richard Thebo, director of the Open Door Mission in Old Town, confirms his claim.
“Gerry is the type that can tell you how to do anything, from baking your Ma’s apple pie to putting an engine in a Kaiser,” Thebo said.
In the late 1940s after graduating high school, Gerry paid his way to a bachelor’s degree in geography at Northwestern Oklahoma State University (NWOSU) workings as a bellhop and librarian.
He dropped out to join the Navy at the beginning of the Korean War, serving as an air traffic controller. But unlike many of his military peers who chose aviation careers, Gerry decided to finish school.
“You have got to be a good pinochle or poker player, a card counter, to be a good controller,” Gerry said. “I was not.”
He graduated from NWOSU, and then went on to teach economics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, Boston State College, Plymouth State University in New Hampshire and the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. He also spent a year at Cornell University as an extension specialist.
He moved to Fort Collins in the late 1980s and after a short tenure as a salesman, retired at 62 and started collecting social security.
Thebo said he first met Gerry when he came into the shelter as a client, but they soon became friends when Gerry decided to volunteer for The Open Door Mission.
“Gerry’s a guy who will talk about a lot of different things,” Thebo said. “When I first met him I thought maybe he was stretching the truth about all the different things he has done. But . after talking to a lot of people who know him, I found if Gerry says he’s done it, he’s done it.”
Thebo said Gerry “did a wonderful job” as the first overnight supervisor at The Open Door Mission.
“He handled the whole situation,” he said, “And he kept everything smooth.”
He volunteered for 10 years and three months on and off. He also volunteered at the New Bridges Shelter during the day and The Open Door Mission at night. He stopped volunteering in 2003 when his age started to outweigh his sense of civic duty.
“It wears you out,” he said, “I only did it because it had to be done.”
The shelter is now part of his afternoon rounds. He eats lunch there nearly every day.
“Gerry is very bright and articulate,” Gonzales said. “He walks by almost every day and stops for a cup of coffee.”
“Gerry’s our director,” Sloniker said. “He always graces us with his presence.”
Ott said when Gerry walks in to Jay’s Bistro he automatically gets his cup of decaf coffee ready. Gerry never has to pay for coffee at any of his stops.
“The thing I appreciate about Gerry is even if he’s sitting down listening to music and I’m behind the bar, he makes a point to get up and shake your hand,” Ott said.
Johnny Benson, a bartender at Trail Head Tavern, echoed a similar sentiment.
“Gerry has a fantastic memory,” Benson said. “I had been out of town for four years, and when I came back Gerry remembered my name.”
Gerry said he shakes the hands of his male friends and hugs and kisses his female friends.
“It’s the way I was raised,” Gerry said. “I’m an Okie.”
Maggie McLearan, 26, a frequent visitor to downtown bars, said, “Gerry’s a great guy. He just comes around and says hi to everyone.”
One night recently, she was flirting with some guys at a bar and Gerry showed up. The women kissed Gerry on the cheek and “the guys were like ‘Gerry always gets so much more play than us,'” McLearan said.
Gerry said, “I don’t want people to think, ‘oh, here comes that dirty old man.’ I just like to thank people for being part of my day.”
At the end of his rounds, Gerry returns to the Northern Hotel.
“Best place to live in town,” Gerry said. “Bar-none.”
Staff Writer Tim Maddocks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.