TRAVERSE CITY — D. Jerome Slack has a warm place in his heart for Buckley, Mesick and Benzie County folks.
He was born four miles from Buckley, attended a one-room schoolhouse near Mesick, and owes a debt of gratitude to the 25 or so Benzie County men and boys who helped clear ashes from a devastating business fire in the early 1950s.
To give back, he hands out —usually in person — a couple of dozen, $1,000 scholarships to students in those three school districts each year.
“I used to be a teacher, and I just think it’s good to give a little help to young people that are coming up,” said Slack, who now lives in a Traverse City condo with his wife, Margery.
The Slacks ask school officials to choose the scholarship recipients. He intends them for students who aren’t academic rock stars —they must earn a C+ average or above — but who possess good moral character and a solid plan.
A typical recipient might be a student who initially didn’t like school, but then something — a teacher or a class —lit their academic fire, said Benzie Central High School Principal Pete Olson.
“The scholarship gives them a great opportunity to go to school and see what it’s all about,” Olson said.
Slack, 94, earned an industrial arts degree from Western Michigan College in 1939. He taught school and then served in World War II. When he returned in mid-school year of 1946, he couldn’t find a teaching job, so he helped his aging father-in-law turn his little Thompsonville hardware store into a building supply store.
“I liked teaching all right, but I thought I could do better,” he said. “Back then, a teaching job paid $1,200 a year.”
At the time, lumber stores just sold lumber. Slack’s novel idea was to help customers with home improvement projects and invested $3,000 in the new store.
“I used my experience as an industrial arts teacher to help people with hardware, plumbing,” he said. “It went over like a, I don’t know what. People came to Thompsonville from all over — Grand Rapids, Cadillac, Traverse City. It wasn’t very long before we were getting over a million dollars in business.”
After six years, he and his wife decided to take a Fourth of July vacation. When they returned, the lumber and office building had burned to the ground.
Slack would have been penniless if it weren’t for the 25 men and boys who cleared the ashes and debris with nothing more than picks and shovels. The bank and his suppliers also helped him out, he said.
Slack eventually built another building supply store in Cadillac, and then turned his skills to investing and land contracts.
Jerome and Margery said they get a lot of out of giving scholarships, but would appreciate more thank you notes. Their foundation is well-endowed and the scholarships will continue for many more years, Margery said.
“We value education,” Marjery said. “That’s the long and short of it.”