Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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April 21, 2013

Funeral director looks for clues into vet’s past

WELCH — When Jerry Michael Black died in a Knoxville, Tenn., storage shed in early March, his story was not over. Black, 50, was known in the Knoxville homeless community, but almost nothing was known of his past. Nothing, except the fact that from April 2, 1980 until his honorable discharge on Feb. 22, 1982, Black served in the U.S. Navy.

During his two-year hitch in the Navy, Black served as a recruit seaman who repaired electrical/mechanical equipment on the USS Norton Sound, a Currituck Class seaplane tender that had been converted for use as a testing platform for the AEGIS weapon systems during Black’s tenure.

Authorities in Knoxville found Black in the storage building on March 7, after some homeless people who knew him reported him as missing. The storage container was known to be a place that was frequently visited by the homeless community. His remains were taken to the East Tennessee Regional Forensic Center located at the University of Tennessee Hospital in Knoxville. An autopsy technician worked with the Knoxville Police Department confirmed his identity and began a search for relatives.

“No one claimed Jerry Black and almost a month passed without any inquiries except the behind-the-scenes work the forensic center employee was doing on his behalf,” Jeffrey B. Berry, the funeral director of Berry Funeral Home in Knoxville wrote in an email message to the editors of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph and the Beckley Register-Herald. Berry Funeral Home is a “Dignity Memorial Provider” in Knoxville that has been partnered with the forensic center to assist in the burial of homeless or indigent veterans.

“The Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program is sponsored by Texas-based Service Corporation International and is present in 35 cities across the U.S. and has assisted in over 1,400 services for homeless veterans,” Berry wrote in his email message to the two newspapers.

Berry had a brief obituary posted in a Knoxville newspaper that indicated the Navy vet was born on April 5, 1962, however his discharge papers revealed that he was born on July 28, 1962, most likely in McDowell County. “At an early age, Jerry lost his parents,” Berry wrote in his email. “His mother died of cancer and Jerry was placed in a foster home in West Virginia and later moved with that family to Arizona.

“He lived with two foster families before he enlisted in the Navy,” Berry continued. “After he was discharged, his life remains a mystery. It is believed that he resided in Monroe, Ga., for a while and at some point, he arrived and lived in Knoxville until he was found in that lonely shed.”

Berry wrote that on April 11, more than 100 people gathered at the East Tennessee Veterans Cemetery “to honor a man no one knew.” Berry wrote that every branch of the military was represented and the local media covered his committal service.

According to Berry, three days after the service, a person named Kathy, posted information about Black on a Knoxville TV blog, stating that she knew Black, and said that he “talked about his sisters in West Virginia and his aunt who lives in Tennessee. Hope someone can reach them.”

Berry asked the Register-Herald and the Daily Telegraph to publish his letter in hopes of finding some members of Black’s family.

The McDowell County Clerk’s office has a copy of Jerry Michael Black’s birth certificate with his birth mother listed as a Patrice Ellen Black, who was 22 years old at the time of his birth on July 28, 1962, and listed her address as Elkhorn. There was a Pat Black who lived in Elkhorn, but she did not graduate from Northfork High School until 1964, according to her classmate, Patrice Bowles.

Another former Elkhorn resident, Shirl Davidson, remembered participating in a spelling bee in 1951 with a girl she attended Elkhorn Elementary School with whose name was Patsy Black. The 6th grade spelling bee was broadcast on WELC radio and Davidson said she has a newspaper photo of the competitors.

“Patsy wasn’t in my graduating class,” Davidson said. “Our reunion committee has been trying to contact her for several years, but we never heard what happened to her.” Davidson graduated from Elkhorn High School in 1957.

“She was a nice person,” Davidson said. “I can still see her face in my head. She was a quiet type. We all wondered what happened to her.”

Berry’s email address is Jeffrey.berry@dignitymemorial.com.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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