A dancing, singing soul: Remembering Jerry Collins

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Jerry Collins was known for his fun-loving and kind personality. The St. Michael's student was found dead in a nearby park on September 14. (Photo by Grace Cunning)

Jerry Collins was known for his fun-loving and kind personality. The St. Michael’s student was found dead in a nearby park on September 14. (Photo by Grace Cunning)

Memories of Jerry Collins are dancing across the St. Michael’s College campus, just like he used to.

Krystin Gee will always remember the fun-loving guy bursting into her friend’s dorm, a pair of stockings draped over his silky hair, jokingly yelling, “This is a stick up; give me all your stuff!”

Collins was the type of kid to play football with a peanut butter jar at 3 a.m., Aeddan Flaherty said. Or the one to choose the unconventional gas station treat: a fish sandwich.

“Gas station fish. Gas station fish. That would be a good band name,” Collins said that time, an occasion Sarah Green remembers fondly.

Collins, a Bridgewater, Mass. native, took his own life the morning of September 14, but his presence is still felt on the close-knit campus.

One day last year, Tori Hubbard was in her room, feeling a little down. Collins came by to chat, or to sneak food, but before she knew it, they were having a two-person dance party.

“Just a small act of kindness like that touched me forever,” she said. “Jerry always made me happy and put a smile on my face. The amazing thing is, he did that for absolutely everyone, not just me.”

That smiling, caring personality is how Collins touched the hearts of not only his friends, family and acquaintances, but also an entire community, his friends explained.

A distinct laugh that could be heard through apartment walls, dance moves that earned his limbs comparisons to the wacky inflatable tube men that greet car dealerships and his ability to comfort anyone are just a few of the many traits his friends remember.

“He made you feel that him seeing you was the best part of his day,” Brendan Donovan said. “And he did that to everybody.”

Known as a goofball who didn’t have to try to be funny, the guy who made any situation fun and didn’t ask anything in return, Collins’ friends said his personality is hard to pin down. Instead, he’s just Jerry.

The night before

Early in the evening on Tuesday, Sept. 13, Green and Collins stood outside the townhouses with a group of friends, discussing Collins’ depression. Friends encouraged him, telling him, “It’s going to be OK. It sucks right now, it sucks, but we’re gonna get through it. We’re in it together,” Green recalled.

“To imagine how low he was feeling is just impossible for anyone to understand,” she said.

Green, who also struggles with depression, said she and Collins often shared their experiences with mental illness.

Later that night, Snapchats of Collins being his goofy self spread across social media. Soon after, he showed up at Green’s townhouse, where a group of friends were watching a movie. They could tell he was in a low, low place, she said. 

The two stayed up until 3 a.m., just being in one another’s presence. For a while, she had him pick weeds outside, just to get his mind off things.

“When I found out, I said, ‘There’s no way.’ I thought I was going to go to bed and wake up the next day, and Jerry would just be like, ‘Ugh guys, last night was such bullshit. Thank you for being there,’” she said. “I thought everyone would just wake up and I’d hear that stupid laugh again.”

Collins was found in the Gilbrook Natural Area behind campus early that morning, police said. Speculations have spread of how Collins took his life and what time he was found, along with other details, but the case is still under investigation. Winooski police said the final report from the state’s medical examiner’s office will be released in three to five weeks.

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A note Collins wrote in his class notebook the day before he was found dead is printed in the program distributed at his funeral. (Courtesy photo)

Collins’ struggle

According to friend Claire Fogarty, everybody knew Collins was dealing with something, because he kept his friends in the loop. They just didn’t understand the severity.

“People would just kind of know him as the crazy, life of the party, dancer, always had a smile on his face. And he did, but there was another side of him,” Green said.

Collins left a note, which the majority of his friends haven’t seen. It’s now in his parents’ possession, Green said.

When news of Collins’ final struggle spread across campus, knees gave out and wails of desperation sounded. Around 50 people gathered at the school’s International Commons building, leading no one to question Collins’ impact, Shandon D. Kelleher said.

“He brought together so many people you would never think would be together,” Green said.

That was evident last Sunday, when about 100 people representing St. Michael’s walked in the National Alliance on Mental Illness event in Collins’ memory, raising $5,655 for the organization.

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About 100 people represented St. Michael’s College and late friend Jerry Collins at the National Alliance on Mental Illness Mind Walk last Sunday in Burlington. (Courtesy photo)

The crowd represented Active Minds, a campus organization dedicated to eradicating the stigma of mental illness. Hope Happens Here, a campus group with a similar motivation and a concentration on mental illness in student athletes, was also present.

Collins’ friends had several messages for others struggling.

“It’s OK to not be OK,” they said. “Just listen.”

“We have to learn as a society to be more comfortable and open about how we feel,” Green said, “because you see the more that people bottle it up, the worse everything gets.”

Green said because people don’t talk about depression, they’re embarrassed by it.

“It’s hard to understand because it’s not a physical [illness]. If you’re sick and have a cough, people can tell,” she said. “But [depression] is a chemical imbalance in your brain.”

His memory

All over campus, students are sporting purple ribbons with zebra print, resembling an outfit Collins often wore around campus. About 20 people got tattoos in his memory, and countless people attended his wake and funeral in Massachusetts.

With people filling every pew, balcony, aisle, lobby and even the church’s front steps, there was no question Collins was loved, attendees said.

Part of that was his ability to make them laugh. Even at his own funeral, friends said Collins achieved this. Donovan said the priest noted Collins’ fake Facebook name, “Shmerry Shmollins,” noting you can’t spell “Shmerry” without “merry.”

“The things I would do for him to walk into my house right now and make a mess in my kitchen and then deny it,” Donovan said.

“We miss him,” Fogarty added.

“When he died that night, a part of me left as well,”  friend David Shektman said. “If I could spread even half of the amount of happiness he did to the people I come in contact with in my lifetime, I will have lived a fulfilled life.”