Jerry Miller: Leading an independent life

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By JEFF PICKELL

The old saying goes that actions speak louder than words.

That’s especially true in the case of Jerry Miller. Although the vast majority of people in the area have never had an extended conversation with the rural Fayette resident, he is known in the community for being kind-hearted and friendly. He’s also held a steady job for more than 30 years.

The everyday activities most people accomplish with relative ease—such as  cleaning and dressing—take Jerry a lot longer.

jerry.millerJerry is afflicted with cerebral palsy, which is a broad term for the condition that arises when the parts of the brain that control muscle tone—a certain muscle’s resistance to movement—are damaged before, during or shortly after birth.

No two cerebral palsy cases are the same. It barely manifests itself in some people, while others are left wheelchair-bound and require constant care.

Jerry is somewhere in between. He is visibly affected by cerebral palsy. He moves more slowly than most people, lacks flexibility in many joints, and has difficulty speaking and sustaining conversations.

However, he lives very much on his own. He drives his own car. He mows his lawn. He does his laundry. He cleans his house—a task which occupies much of his time since Tucker, his pet dog, is of a breed that sheds.

A common misconception is that people with cerebral palsy also suffer some kind of mental deficiency. While people with the condition may have trouble learning due to their physical handicaps—it may be hard for them to sit at a desk and read, for example—mental handicaps don’t come hand in hand with cerebral palsy.

As a 1975 graduate of Gorham Fayette High School who writes sentences in perfect cursive, who keeps his own financial records, who even raised a pair of lambs that took home the grand champion prize at the county fair, it’s clear that Jerry has plenty going on upstairs.

Normal Memorial Library director Sue Schaffner has known this for nearly two decades. Jerry recently observed his 18th anniversary as a library employee.

“He has a wonderful sense of humor and he’s very intelligent,” she said. “And he has a great memory. It’s hard to see this unless you’ve spent a lot of time around him.”

Jerry works from 10 to 12 hours a week putting away books, magazines and tapes. Before he took the library job, he worked at Quadco Rehabilitation Center in Defiance for 13 and a half years. He didn’t especially like it, but it was hard for someone with his disability to find a new job.

As Jerry’s sister Nancy Figy explained, holding down a full-time job was never much of a possibility.

“He has to start getting ready well ahead of time, and the two or three hours at the library is a lot of work for him. By the time he gets home he’s exhausted,” she said. “He has to take a nap.”

On the other hand, Jerry enjoys a variety of activities. He loves watching his niece, Haley Figy, play basketball with the Fayette varsity squad. He drives downtown to gas up his car. He mows his lawn avidly and exercises his hand by smashing pop cans with a wall-mounted apparatus.

And then, of course, there’s Tucker, the dream dog.

Jerry always wanted a black lab, but there was no way he would ever be able to house train one. With Nancy’s help, he applied for a dog from Dog Assistance of America. Because Jerry can’t speak well, the organization couldn’t give him a certified guide dog, but it was willing to provide a dog that didn’t meet all the guide dog qualifications.

He knew the chances he would get a black lab were slim, but he did get the next best thing—a black lab mix.

“He always tells me he can’t get anything done unless Tucker’s asleep,” said Sue. “That dog won’t leave him alone.”

Nancy and her family live nearby and help Jerry with the few household tasks he isn’t capable of, such as stepping up on a chair to change a light bulb and going grocery shopping. But by and large Jerry goes it alone.

“Basically, we touch base with him by telephone every two or three days,” she said.

Up until seven years ago, he lived with his parents. As they aged, it became evident that he would need a place he could live in and maintain on his own after they were gone. So, a little more than 20 years ago, the Millers began construction on a small house just down the road from their own.

“The goal was to build a home that he could live in on his own for an extended period of time,” Nancy said.

Jerry started living alone in 1999, and things have been going well.

“It was a change, but he has learned to live and cope with it,” said Nancy, adding that Jerry’s job at the library helps him maintain social interaction and keeps him outgoing.

“Being at home all the time would drive him bananas,” she said.

    – Jan. 4, 2007

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