Words by Terrell Manasco | Photos by Blakeney Clouse
Jerry Dollar probably accomplishes more before breakfast than some of us do all week.
In his eight decades on this planet, he’s worked in construction, taught school, been a research chemist, and worked at the Pentagon. For the better part of 53 years, Jerry taught chemistry, mathematics, and science at Bevill State Community College.
Oh, and he’s tutored a few actors, including Fred Savage and Leonardo DeCaprio.
Jerry Dollar was born June 21, 1936, in Dora, Alabama. His father was a coal miner, his mother a homemaker. They also owned a small Dora cafe. When the Samoset Mines closed, in a time “that was before unionization and therefore they owed their employees nothing,” Jerry said, his parents found other work. His dad knew something about cars and opened up a garage in the backyard. His mother, an accomplished seamstress, found work as a fitter with Burger-Phillips in Birmingham. “She rode the Missala bus from Dora to Birmingham six days a week,” Jerry remembers.
A bright student who excelled at Dora High School, Jerry graduated class valedictorian in 1954. Unable to pay for college that fall, he looked for employment. Mack James, owner of H.C. James Lumber Company in Jasper, often had lunch at Jerry’s parents’ cafe. One day, James inquired if Jerry was ready for college. When Jerry explained he needed a job to pay for tuition, James told him to come see him.
The next day, Jerry showed up at the lumber yard. “He threw me a shovel and said, ‘There’s a lowboy trailer full of sand that needs to be emptied,’” Jerry says. “I emptied it that day and part of the next morning.”
In 1955, Jerry enrolled at Florence State University, working at the lumber yard whenever he wasn’t in school or church. His jovial tone turns serious for a moment as he speaks of his former boss. “I can never thank him enough, as I have on several occasions, for that opportunity,” Jerry says somberly. “That was how I got my bachelor’s degree. I am eternally grateful to Mack.”
While at Florence State, Jerry became active in the ROTC program. After graduating in January 1959 with a double major in mathematics and chemistry, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army Reserves and ordered to active duty.
Prior to leaving for basic officer training that summer, Jerry taught school five months at Curry Elementary. In June, he departed for Fort Sill, Oklahoma. “I took the Field Artillery Basic Officer Leader Course,” he says. “I graduated third in my class.”
After completing his tour, Jerry came home, remaining active in the local Army Reserves. He had no teaching certificate at the time, but subsequently taught at Sumiton, Curry Elementary, and McNeill Junior High in Bessemer.
In 1961, Jerry applied for a job in chemistry with Southern Research Institute and was interviewed by Dr. William Sheehan. When Sheehan explained they preferred someone with experience, Jerry politely inquired how someone fresh out of college could have experience. Sheehan agreed.
A week later, Jerry got the job.
While working for SRI, Jerry also made use of the knowledge he had acquired working in construction. “I tore my parents’ old house down and built them a brand new one with three bedrooms and one bath,” Jerry says. “I paid it off in a year or two.” (He later sold that house to his sister and built his parents a larger, two-story home.)
In 1965, Jerry got a phone call. It was Dr. David Rowland from Walker College, whom he knew through the local U.S. Army Reserves, offering him a job. Since arriving on campus, Jerry has taught mathematics, science, and chemistry. Many of his students have gone on to become successful doctors, dentists, and pharmacists.
Jerry graduated from the United States Army War College in 1983, and he was named Vice President of his class of 180 officers. He retired as a full colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, with 30 years of active service. “I met some wonderful friends,” Jerry says. “Some have passed away, but several remain friends today.”
In 1983, he came home and resumed teaching at Walker College. A year later, he got a phone call. “The Vice-Chief of Staff of the Army asked me to return to active duty to become one of the writers of the Professional Development of the Officers Study,” he says. “Before I came back home, I was asked to stay on another year for the Non-Commissioned Officer’s Study. I spent two years at the Pentagon.”
Around this time, Jerry’s wife, Linda, and their son, Luke, had both become active in theater. Luke was acting with UAB Town and Gown Theater and the Shakespeare Theater in Montgomery, while Linda worked as a children’s tutor for Les Miserables on Broadway, and for TV shows like Grace Under Fire. Jerry returned home and joined them, landing a walk-on part in Roses Are for the Rich, and tutoring Anna Paquin in math and physics for the film Finding Forrester. “You can’t tell it, but I’m in the movie,” he chuckles. “It’s the scene where Sean Connery is addressing this huge group of academia and family members. I’m standing in back to the right with my arms crossed.”
It’s hard to miss the pride in his voice whenever Jerry speaks of his son, Luke. The Duke University graduate is now a professor and chair of the Biology Department at Catawba Collegein North Carolina. He was also recognized as an Emerging Explorer for the National Geographic Society. “He’s just a good kid,” Jerry smiles. “He grew up very creative. I am extremely fortunate to have a child like Luke who’s bright and responsible.”
Since 1994, Luke has spent every summer doing work in Madagascar, except for the year his mother passed away. Jerry often visits Luke and his family whenever time permits. Has he ever been to Madagascar with his son? “No, and I’m not about to go,” he says with mock indignation. “You have to understand, he’s my only heir. I’m afraid he will get me over there and feed me to the lions, so he can collect early!” he jokes.
Over the years, Jerry has held various academic titles, including Dean of Students and Assistant Dean of Student Services.When he retired from more than 50 years of teaching in 2018, he was awarded the title, “Dean Emeritus.”
“It has been a wonderful time for me,” Jerry says. “I couldn’t ask for any more.”
Thank you, Colonel Dollar, for all your service. 78