by Lucas J. Thayer, ’14
After 32 years as an elementary educator, landlord, renovator and activist, Jerry Numbers, ’65, was preparing to retire. He and his wife, Beverly, moved into a cozy lake house on Diamond Lake in 1997. They planned on selling their rental properties over the next few years. But quitting doesn’t come easy to Numbers. Every day, he would make a two-hour commute to continue his work as a leader in the community. At 75 years old, Numbers doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
Numbers continues to serve as vice president of the East Central Community Organization (ECCO), and chairs the East Central Neighborhood Council to develop the neighborhood’s infrastructure. The Numberses’ three children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren all live in Spokane. Numbers remains involved in restoring and preserving historic places in Spokane. Their community ties run deeper than ever.
But community service wasn’t always part of the plan. Neither was Numbers’ career as a teacher.
“Things just fit together. Why they fit together at a certain time, it’s not something you spend a lot of time thinking about. You just do it,” says Numbers.
Numbers grew up on the South Hill, close to where he now resides after moving back from the lake. He began taking classes part-time at Whitworth College in 1956, striving for a degree in economics and business administration. For Numbers, Whitworth was an attractive choice to earn a degree. The class sizes were small, and the professors were well known in the community through evangelical outreach programs.
In 1958, he and his high school sweetheart, Beverly, were wed. Their first child was born the next year. He worked nights in an aircraft manufacturing plant to support his wife and child, and to pay the $325 a semester for tuition.
But, only a semester away from graduation, he had a sudden change of plans. Numbers’ friend, a teacher, invited him to sit in on a class he was teaching at the elementary school. That night, he told his wife that he wanted to forget all about business, and become a teacher. The change would delay his graduation for another five years.
Mrs. Numbers was not amused. “It wasn’t a happy day,” Bev Numbers recalls, although in retrospect, she says the change was for the best. “It was his calling.”
“I never looked back, never regretted it,” says Numbers.
Numbers graduated with his degree in elementary education in 1965, and moved from grade to grade as an elementary school teacher for the next five years. In 1970, he took a position as an elementary school guidance counselor.
The two of them began to look for ways to help outside of the school system. One opportunity led to the next, and their work in the community expanded. In 1978, Numbers became a member of ECCO. He now serves as the group’s Vice President.
“Initially, our community involvement was very focused around our church: youth groups and summer camps for many years, while our kids were growing up. Then, we branched out from there into other multi-community activities,” says Numbers.
Around this time, the Numbers began buying houses, renovating them and renting them out. One such house, a modest Craftsman-style residence at 603 S. Arthur Street, would one day become Numbers’ greatest endeavor.
The house was originally the residence of Sonora Dodd, the founder of Father’s Day. Numbers purchased the house in 1972, but it would be another three decades before it would be recognized as a national landmark.
While it was historic, there was plenty of work to be done before the house could be called a home, and more still before it would be recognized as a landmark. Sagging foundations, cracked walls, and a long list of repairs stood in the Numbers’ path.
“It was in very bad shape. 60 years of renting had not been kind to the place,” says Numbers.
Over the course of three years, he would repair the cracks in the walls, lift the foundations, and restore the exterior to its original condition. Often, he would use wood recycled from other renovation projects. Numbers spend hundreds of hours patching the original plaster walls himself. In 2010, the work was complete; the Dodd House opened its doors just in time for the Centennial Anniversary of Father’s Day.
“This has really been a fun project, and as a result, we’ve got this great old historic house that we get to live in,” says Numbers.
Quitting isn’t easy for Numbers. He finds himself with little free time, busier now than he ever was as an educator. “Free weekends? None,” Numbers says with a resilient chuckle, “There are no free weekends.” However, Numbers admits that he takes any chance he can to visit his grandchildren’s sporting events.
Numbers continues to rent houses to low-income families and advocate for the community. ECCO recently took over the local community center from the city government. Last year, the group built two new low-income housing units, with another on the way. On top of all of his community projects, Numbers still finds time to help out in the neighborhood. He’s still not sure when he’ll get out of the business.
“It’s a full-time job, what we do here in addition to the community stuff. I’ve gotten so involved and ingrained in the community stuff that I can’t say ‘no’ and fall out of it,” says Numbers. The work Numbers continues in his community parallels the labor poured into his historic residence. Over the past four decades, Numbers jacked up the foundations of his community. He patched the cracks in the lives of the students he taught. And, just like maintaining a historic house, the work is never done.
“If I didn’t enjoy what I’m doing I wouldn’t do it. Sometimes I wonder why I’m doing so much. When I see other people my age that are heading for Arizona for six months, then back for six months... I don’t want to do that.” He paused, then added with a laugh: “But I wouldn’t mind going for a week.”