Volume 74, Number 26 | October 27 - November 03 , 2004

Reeling in the years, ex-Marine takes a look back

Jerry Jansen, 90, in his Perry St. apartment with a birthday poster signed by members of his block association, Sixth Precinct Community Council and others.

By Albert Amateau

Although he’s not as steady on his pins as he used to be (this was the first year that he missed the annual Striped Bass Blue Fish Derby in Martha’s Vineyard) Jerry Jansen, ex-Marine, union stalwart and neighborhood activist, still goes up and down five flights of stairs to and from the Greenwich Village apartment that he’s been calling home for more than 50 years.

He celebrated his 90th birthday on Oct. 9 at the Parish Hall of St. John’s-in-the-Village with friends from the Perry St. Block Association, members of the Sixth Precinct Auxiliary Police, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, one of his daughters, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The party was a memorable event, ranking right up there with the time in the late 1940s when he was a Painters Union advocate defending fellow members facing dismissal from their jobs with the New York City Housing Authority after being charged with alleged infractions of the rules.

“I defended 13 cases and I lost only one,” he told a visitor last week. “And that was because the dame I was defending lied to me,” he said.

Jansen recalled getting a job as a painter with the Housing Authority in 1939 when he was 25 years old. “You had to pay someone off to get a job, but they had tests for civil service jobs, too. About 6,000 men took it and 100 passed. I was No. 20,” he recalled.

On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Jansen went down to the recruiting station in Jamaica, Queens, the nearest one to his family’s home in St. Albans. “The recruiting officer said, ‘You guys over here, you’re in the Marines,’ ” he recalled.

Jansen served in the Second Marine Division for four years in the Pacific. “I’m a peacenik now, I can tell you. I’m against war, I’ve seen too much of it — Kwajalaine, Eniwetok, Saipan, Tinian,” he said, referring to his four island invasions.

As an older recruit (27 at the time) he became a squad leader. “I had 18 kids in my squad. I took them through four campaigns and I was the only one that got hurt,” he boasted. “About 20 years after the war, a bunch of them got together and sent me a gift, an antique Navy lieutenant’s pistol from the War of 1812,” he said, showing his visitor the treasured trophy.

Up on the walls of his Village apartment are models and pictures of sailing vessels, and an array of surf fishing rods. “Surf fishing is a heavy sport. I can’t stand up to it anymore, It’s not sitting in a boat,” Jansen said. As a teenager (“I was the oldest of seven — two brothers and four sisters.”) he began surf fishing in the Rockaways at night on weekends. “There’s a certain ambiance that goes with surf fishing,” he said, “You meet the guys, BS with them, stay out all night sometimes and come home soaking wet.

After returning from the war, Jansen would fish Montauk Point. “But one trip to the Vineyard cured me of that,” he said, noting that he is listed in the Martha’s Vineyard Fishing Derby Hall of Fame and wrote a book, “Successful Surf Fishing,” which became a standard in the sport about 40 years ago.

He moved to the Village in 1950 because his wife, whom he met while both were working for the Housing Authority, lived in the neighborhood. She died about 10 years ago but her spirit is still very present for Jansen. “She was a real New Yorker, Jewish, a women’s libber, she went to Hunter College, a bright dame,” he recalled. Both were radical union activists. “Lillian was so left wing that she used to criticize Soviet leaders for being sellouts,” he recalled. “Paul Robeson sat right there,” he said, pointing to a chair and referring to the famed actor, singer and civil rights activist whose career ended in the 1950s because of his left-wing politics. “When he was on the run he would stay here.”

Jansen grew up in a time and a city that were worlds removed from what we know today. He remembers his father (“He was an automobile painter and an artist of some talent.”) taking him to six-day bike races, which were all the rage in the 1920s.

“All the gangsters used to go to them. One year, Frankie Yale, a big gangster, had a four-day bike race for six teams of school kids in the Coney Island Velodrome,” he recalled. “I was teamed up with a kid from Belgium who had the same name I did. We would do four hours on and four hours off. It started on Sunday night and went on Monday and Tuesday when all the kids got tired. Who won? It was a six-way tie and they gave each kid $100. Imagine giving a 12-year-old that much. I brought home more than my father made in two weeks,” he said.

With seven children, the Jansens had to struggle to keep everyone fed and clothed. “My mother was only 5 foot 2 but she was a real tough broad,” he recalled. “We were living in St. Albans when the gas man came to shut off the meter. She said, ‘I have seven kids here and you’re not going to shut off the gas.’ She came out with a broom and said, ‘Take one step down the cellar stairs and I’ll take this broom to you.’ The guy took off and never came back,” he said.

Jansen still keeps a boat, a Hobie catamaran, in City Island and although he hasn’t sailed her in a while, he remembers how fast she skimmed over the water. He’s been a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary and until recently gave courses in boat safety. And for about 35 years he’s been an active member of the Sixth Precinct Police Auxilliary.

At the party on Oct. 9, both the Coast Guard and New York Police Department bestowed plaques in tribute to Gerard Jansen for years of service on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Proclamations from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Councilmember Christine Quinn, Assemblymember Deborah Glick and State Senator Tom Duane now share places of honor among the mementos in Jansen’s apartment.

In a special place alongside the Navy pistol that his fellow Marines gave him years ago is the American flag that flew over the Capitol in Washington, D.C., that Congressmember Jerrold Nadler had sent to him.

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