By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Three year ago, Sherry Hunt’s brother, Jerry Michael Black, called to wish her a happy birthday. He was working for a construction company in Tennessee, but he didn’t say exactly where in that state. That was the last she heard about him.
Then on Sunday, April 21, Hunt received a phone call from a friend. A story about a homeless Navy veteran who had died in a storage building was on the front page of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.
“I had just come back from church and a family friend contacted me. She had seen it (the story) in the Daily Telegraph, and she asked if it could be my brother. And I said, yes, it sounded like him,” Hunt said Tuesday morning.
Black, 50, was found March 7 in a Knoxville, Tenn. storage building that was often used by homeless people. His remains were taken to the East Tennessee Forensic Center at the University of Tennessee where his identity was confirmed. The Knoxville Police Department started searching for his relatives.
To aid this search, Jeffrey B. Berry, funeral director of Berry Funeral Home in Knoxsville, sent an email to the editors of the Daily Telegraph and the Beckley Register-Herald. The funeral home is a “Dignity Memorial Provider” that works with the forensic center to assist the burial of homeless or indigent veterans.
A short obituary placed in a Knoxville newspaper indicated that Black was born on April 5, 1962, possibly in McDowell County. Berry wrote in his email that at an early age, Black lost his parents. His mother died of cancer, and Black was placed in a foster home in West Virginia and later moved with that family to Arizona.
“We were all placed in foster homes after our mother died,” Hunt said. The siblings were eventually able to get back in touch with each other.
Black lived with two foster families before joining the U.S. Navy. He served from April 2, 1980 until his honorable discharge on Feb. 22, 1982. Little is known about his life after his Navy career.
Hunt said it was not unusual for the family to hear little from her brother Jerry.
“That was usual of him, to just be by himself,” she recalled. “He wasn’t completely alone, and he would call every once in a while.”
Thinking back, Hunt said her brother Jerry liked being by himself when he was a child, but he was close to his sisters and didn’t cause any problems.
“He was a good kid. He wasn’t into trouble,” she said. “He was just a normal kid. He liked to get out and play basketball with his friends.”
A memorial service for Black has been conducted in Tennessee. On April 11, more than 100 people gathered for a service at the East Tennessee Veterans Cemetery to honor him, Berry said. Every branch of the military was represented, and the local media covered his committal service.
Black’s family is now planning to conduct a memorial service in the county where he was born. There were nine children in his family; he had three brothers and six sisters. He was the last of the brothers, she said.
“He’s missed by all of his sisters,” Hunt said. “I wanted people to know that he had family who really loved him, and we wanted to help him. He could have come home at any time. He didn’t have to be alone.”