Over the course of his teens, Jerry Marshall won the top prize on a gameshow, maintained a worldwide correspondence, saved multiple lives from drowning with his own boat, and became the youngest pilot to fly solo at his local airport. He also endured dozens of hospital stays, constant high doses of antibiotics, a prohibition from crowds and classrooms due to infection risk, and the use of only one lung after the other was removed in childhood. All this was in the 1950s, when the life expectancy of a person with cystic fibrosis was seven. Jerry’s extraordinary life, well-reported by his local small-town paper, offers a striking and endearing perspective on what it can mean to live both with and despite cystic fibrosis, even in the mid-century.

Jerry at 16 in one of his beloved planes. The Times-Mail (Bedford, IN), November 2, 1957.

When Jerry Lee Marshall was born, on February 1, 1941, his parents had already lost three babies to what later doctors would say was probably cystic fibrosis. For the first eight years of his life, spent in tiny Orleans, Indiana, Jerry Lee (as he was generally called until age 14-15; I’ve followed the lead of the papers) grew up as seemingly healthy as his two non-CF older sisters. Unfortunately, his respiratory symptoms, once undeniably apparent, were severe. At 10, half of his left lung required surgical removal due to advanced bronchiectasis, with its other half removed the next year. By this time, too, he’d had so many injections of penicillin that the bacteria in his lungs had grown resistant to the antibiotic, necessitating the use of stronger meds, notably terramycin. His parents had tried the tactic, common in that period, of relocating to warmer climates in hopes of a positive impact on his health, but neither the winter spent in Florida nor the one spent in New Mexico seems to have done the trick.

Nonetheless, young Jerry Lee remained resilient. He kept active, riding his bicycle around town with glee, already knowing and known by most of Orleans’ 1400 or so residents, beloved for a “broad grin and winning personality.” His doctors insisted he be kept away from the classroom, for fear of infection risk, as well as the movie theatre and any crowded space. He thus received instruction at home via periodic visits from a teacher, lauded for his high marks well into his teens.

Jerry in Boy Scouts, aged about 10. For health reasons he had to leave the Scouts not long afterwards. The Times-Mail (Bedford, IN), December 22, 1952.

More than anything, though, planes captured Jerry Lee’s young imagination. As one reporter put it in 1952, “when anyone mentions airplanes, its like a huge cloud lifting from the shoulders of this boy.” At this point, his only direct experience was with the model planes of another hobby, but the desire to be aloft was a major spur to one of his first, and certainly the most public, of his big adventures.

For much of the 1950s, CBS aired a gameshow called “Strike it Rich,” in which contests needing money due to desperate life circumstances and/or medical treatments earned the chance to appear and win money, partially via answering several questions but often more significantly as a consequence of their story airing to reach a sympathetic audience. While not the most palatable concept today – and to many at the time – the show opened a window of opportunity for Jerry Lee’s family. Like numerous families dealing with a child’s cystic fibrosis, the weight of medical expenses was a heavy one. His father had a respectable job at Commercial Motor Freight in Bedford, but not one that paid well enough to easily cover Jerry Lee’s weekly $10 for chronic medication (about $107 today), not to mention the boy’s need for frequent hospital stays.

The hope for financial assistance may have been foremost on the mind of Jerry Lee’s mother as she embarked on the first stage of the application process, writing a letter to True Story magazine which, if published, would be one of four voted on by the public to move on to the show. Jerry Lee himself, however, was most drawn by the prospect of the all-expenses, three-day trip to New York – which, most significantly to his young interests, would include the plane ride there and back.

Jerry, at 12, and parents with the letter sent to True Story magazine. The Times-Mail (Bedford, IN), August 6, 1953.

As the local reporter put it, when the letter of acceptance arrived, “the smile of a youngster on Christmas morning could never be brighter.” To be fair, the reporter hadn’t yet met with his reaction to success on the show itself. In October 1953, when Jerry Lee and his family appeared on “Strike It Rich,” they walked away with the top prize of $500 (about $5400 today), plus pledges for medication assistance from the pharmaceutical companies themselves and an outpouring of support from the public. While in the big city, the family also got the chance for a bus tour of the sights, and Jerry was able to secure autographs from several celebrities at the television studio hosting the gameshow, such as Cesar Romero.

Jerry Lee and his parents boarding the flight to New York City for their appearance on Strike It Rich. The Times-Mail (Bedford, IN), October 23, 1953.

As a slight aside, though Jerry Lee’s episode, like most of the show’s run, seems to be lost, the paper reproduced the requisite questions and answers. If there was any doubt about the show’s focus being sob stories rather than exceptional intellectual accomplishment, the lacklustre ‘challenge’ portion should put it to rest. Here’s what Jerry Lee and his family had to answer, via the Bedford paper:

  • “In what country did the name Reginald originate?” (England)
  • “What word means ‘to form’ and begins with the letter O and ends in ‘ize’?” (organize)
  • Name this tune the orchestra is playing (which was “Banks of the Ohio,” admittedly a probable challenge today, but in frequent circulation at the time). Jerry Lee apparently tripped up on this one, but was allowed to revise his guess, successfully, although the stress broke him into tears.
  • “Name the singer called The Groaner” (Bing Crosby; again a cultural reference much more salient to a youth in 1953).
  • “What body of water lies between England and France?” (the English Channel).

Subsequent to the show’s airing, Jerry Lee and his family received thousands of cards and letters of well-wishes and charitable gifts, the latter ultimately totalling nearly $2000. Spurred by the efforts of a Bedford nurse, Pfizer offered a lifetime supply of the antibiotic terramycin for Jerry Lee, sending around $4000 worth to the family over the course of the next seven years, and Park Davis, makers of the panteric capsules that helped cystic fibrosis patients digest their food before the development of specially produced enzymes, likewise pledged a lifetime’s donation. Local business joined in as well: the Orleans milk association gave the family a year of free milk, while the town drive-in gifted two years of family passes.

Jerry with an abundance of received letters. The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), December 23, 1953

For many people, with chronic illness or not, that might have been a peak of lifetime adventure. Not for Jerry Lee. As he reached his teens, he seized a fortunate period of relatively stable health to pursue adventures closer to home, which remained Central Indiana, although in 1954 his family relocated from Orleans to nearby Bedford, practically a metropolis by comparison, with its 12,500 residents.

A current view of the house Jerry and his family lived in for most of the 1950s, 123 Forest Park Drive, Bedford, Indiana. Via Google Streetview.

Though at 15 his doctors declared him “as well as he has ever been,” in-person schooling was still forbidden out of an abundance of caution. He was, however, allowed to experience the outdoors, eagerly developing a keen boating hobby. He had his own boat, the Jerry Lee, that he went out in frequently, although always with a lifejacket as he wasn’t allowed to swim. While his mother confessed that “we are scared to death when he’s in the boat,” she added that she and his father “don’t want to deny him the one thing in life he can enjoy.” Even if it was perhaps hardly the ‘one,’ exactly – he still built model planes, delighted in corresponding with those who wrote him from all across the world, made the honour roll, and maintained a seemingly flourishing dating life. One article includes this delightful exchange between 15-year-old boy, who at this point appears to have relegated the name ‘Lee’ to his boat, and his mother: “Jerry has three or four girlfriends,” his mother tells the reporter. Jerry, “quickly, shyly, and wisely,” responds with: “No, Mother. Only one.”

Jerry at 15, posed at his homeschool desk. The Times-Mail (Bedford, IN), March 14, 1956.

Jerry’s avid boating hobby soon made waves beyond his circles. In the summer of 1956, while out on the local White River in an impromptu evening boat ride with his parents, Jerry came across a young couple struggling to cling to the bow of their own capsized craft. The pair had already gone under twice, and were calling desperately for help. Jerry was able to maneuver his boat alongside, getting both to safety. This wasn’t his first participation in a rescue – the previous year, he’d come to the assistance of a fallen water skier whose boat pilot was struggling to rescue. It wasn’t even his last! In April 1957, he saved the mayor of nearby town Mitchell from drowning, after the man fell from his boat and friend’s reach in the same river. Certainly there was an element of ‘right place right time’ in Jerry’s heroics, encouraged by the freedom homeschooling allowed to take to the river most afternoon as well as weekends, the sight of his boat soon a familiar one. But it was his own decisive interventions and deft boat skills saving the day, alongside a deeply felt sentiment of obligation to his fellow beings.

“[Jerry] feels so many people have helped him during his life, that he is only too happy when he can do the same for others.”

The Times Mail (Bedford, IN), July 17, 1956.

For Jerry’s sixteenth birthday, friends threw a surprise party at the local boat club, complete with a cake decorated with miniature boats. In perhaps a loose interpretation of the dictate that Jerry avoid crowds, fifteen people were recorded as attending, plus his mother and teacher. Within a few months, however, boating may have slipped to second in Jerry’s heart, because this was the year he learned to fly.

At 16, the plane-crazy child was finally able to obtain a student’s pilot license, passing the physical exams despite his CF and single lung and achieving a near-perfect score on the written exam. After only 7.5 hours of flight training, his instructor felt he was ready for his first solo flight – which no one told his father about until he was already aloft, leading to a stretch where poor Mr. Wayne Marshall “didn’t know where the ground was,” as he himself it put it, trampling the grass to nothing beneath his feet in his anxiety in knowing “that boy was up there where I couldn’t get to him if he needed me.” Happily Jerry landed just fine, buying the crowd a round of soft drinks as per the hanger’s tradition for first solos. When his father asked if he’d been scared, Jerry’s answer was a resounding “No!”.… although he was later overhead confessing to his flight instructor that in all honesty, he was (the instructor replied that he had been too, when he first soloed). Now keen to become a flight instructor himself, Jerry explained his love of flight with striking eloquence: “When I’m flying,” he said, “I know somebody’s lookin’ up.”

Unfortunately, while CF might grant reprieves in the form of stretches of the fairly stable health Jerry seems to have enjoyed in his mid-teens, it can’t be held back by even the forces of resilience, endurance, and determined love of life. Jerry was not able to keep flying for long, due to the strain of lowered oxygen at altitude on limited lungs. He did at least also, at some point, acquire his own car and motorcycle, however such vehicles might pale by comparison to a plane. Though he graduated high school, his health appears to have been in decline by his late teens, growing critical over the summer of 1960, when he was 19.

His lovingly written obituary, from September 1960, describes him as a person who “lived a lifetime insofar as activities were concerned” and “did about everything his heart desired.” His heart, I’m sure, would have desired more years, a full healthy lifetime to pack with activities, but still, the degree to which he did seize what he could is remarkable.

Jerry at 18/19. The Times-Mail (Bedford, IN), September 2, 1960.

‘Inspiration’ can be a fraught term for those of us with illnesses and/or disabilities, loaded as it can be with a sense of marvel at accomplishments that can verge on condescending, at times even commandeering an individuals lived experiences as support for the narratives of others without their challenges. For me, whose body has undergone so many of the same depleting battles as Jerry’s, to regard his life instead provokes other feelings, no less moving. Admiration, at his audacity in pushing limits, both the intense physical demands of a body with CF and the societal perceptions of those constantly marked as “incurably ill and doomed to die.” Respect, for his commitment to seizing what opportunities he could, for persisting in building connections to loved ones, well-wishers, strangers in need, and the environment he lived in. Joy for the very apparent happinesses he was able to make for himself, even amidst the unreported lacunas of illness more common than the exploits making headlines. Jerry lived as a young person with cystic fibrosis in the 1950s, and he definitely lived.

Jerry Lee Marshall’s story revealed itself across numerous articles between 1952 and 1960, nearly all from the local Bedford paper, The Times-Mail. Individual articles are linked in the text as relevant.

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