Father-Daughter Team Create His Memoir

Jennifer Dilley and her father Gerald A. Jewett, Jr., show off the first print galley of the memoir Gerald wrote with Jennifer’s assistance. The Panora Library hosted a Here’s To It! book discussion and signing with Jennifer Dilley and Jerry Jewett. Dilley read a passage her father told about his early encounters with Sam Walton, who eventually founded WalMart, but who first worked at the J. C. Penney store in downtown Des Moines.

By Susan Thompson

Often people reflect on the loss of a loved one by wishing they had done a better job preserving their life stories. Jennifer Dilley, who lives at Lake Panorama with her husband John, won’t have those regrets when her father passes.

That’s because she spent 14 months taking dictation as her father told stories about his life, then turned it into a book that is being well-received by readers.   

Dilley’s father is Gerald A. Jewett, Jr., and is known to most as Jerry. His great-grandfather, George A. Jewett, started a lumber business in Des Moines with two partners in 1879. By 1902, he was the sole owner of the Jewett Lumber Company.

That same great-grandfather was a pioneer of Polk County, starting several other businesses, such as the Jewett Typewriter Company, which was eventually sold to Underwood. A young Jerry spent lots of time with his great-grandfather, so the book weaves in many stories about early Des Moines and Iowa history.

Jerry Jewett followed in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, grandfather and father, and in 1950 officially became the fourth generation in the family lumber business.

The book is titled Here’s To It!, which is a nod to Jewett’s signature toast he has long given to special people on special occasions. The full toast is included towards the end of the 376-page memoir. The book includes 32 chapters and 158 pictures.    

The idea for a book began when Jewett asked Dilley to start working on his eventual obituary. He grew up in Des Moines, had a successful career with Jewett Lumber, and was involved in a host of local clubs and philanthropic efforts.

Dilley did her best to include the most important items in his obituary, without going into much detail. Yet the draft turned out to be longer than Jewett wanted. He took a swing at whittling it down, but the next draft was even longer.  

Dilley had been thinking for a long time it would be nice to help her father write a book about his life, since many people had suggested he pen one. After spending time on the obituary, she decided the time was right. In late August 2016, she presented him with a pre-91st birthday gift—a verbal proposal to help compile a written memoir.

Jewett agreed, and soon the pair was meeting regularly for several hours at a time. Jewett would talk, Dilley would type and ask questions. Then she’d spend several hours piecing together that day’s stories into either chronological order, or by topic.    

In mid-March, the Panora Library hosted a Here’s To It! book discussion and signing. Dilley said she kept track of about 1,000 hours she spent on the project in her own time, but believes the total was eventually about twice that number.

Dilley said she wanted the book to “be in Dad’s voice. So it’s written in first-person, just as he told it to me. I chose a larger font for his words, and oftentimes wrapped in some historical information in a smaller font. Some readers will want to just jump over the heavier stuff. This book can be as deep or as fluffy as you want,” she said. “It’s meant to be his story, but also a reference tool for our descendants.”   

Dilley also added occasional personal comments, set aside in the text by brackets, to give further insight into some of her father’s stories.

The book opens with Jewett’s obituary, carefully crafted before the book project was launched, with blanks for his age and the date of his death. The rest of the book follows with 92 years of back stories about the obit items and more.

While details about the family lumber business are included, much of the book is filled with stories from Jewett’s youth, his extended family, time spent in vacation homes in Colorado and Okoboji, and his love of cars and airplanes.

At the Panora Library event, Jewett told how his interest in airplanes began. “When I was a little kid, there was an air show at the Des Moines airport. My mother took me on a ride in a Ford Tri-Motor airplane, and I was hooked,” he said. Jewett logged 23,300 hours as a pilot in his 55 years of active flying.

Jewett also talked about his maternal great-grandfather, Ambrose Call, who with his brother Asa, founded the town of Algona in 1854. That connection to Algona resulted in a book signing at the Train Wreck Winery there, with another event planned in July during Algona’s Founders Day Weekend. Jennifer and Jerry also will participate in the Friday night Cemetery Walk, playing the parts of their founding ancestors.

Other book signing events have been held at such places as Barnes and Noble, Beaverdale Books, and Wesley Acres, where Jewett lives. It was there last November where Jewett and Dilley got to see and hold the actual print galley of the book for the first time. Then close friends on the Wesley Acres campus gathered around, each waiting their turn to hold and flip through the book.

Jewett will be the speaker at the Des Moines Historical Society gathering May 12 at 1 p.m. at the Franklin Library in Des Moines. The pair also will sign books during an open house at Parks Marina in Okoboji June 23 at 1 p.m.

The book was published by BookLocker, which promotes the book this way:  “Hop on board for a most scenic ride along the delightful life road of this 92-year-young author, as recounted to and compiled/edited by his eldest daughter. From trikes and bikes to cars and boats and trains (and yes, there were airplanes!), the reader is treated to an honest peek inside an admittedly whirlwind life path, including the sometimes hilarious and sometimes heart-wrenching outcomes encountered in its many curves and twists along the way.”

The family ordered 500 copies, and has less than 100 still available, which they sell for $25, including tax and any mailing fees. Jewett has signed and dated each book, and often is asked to inscribe something personal. Special signed orders can be placed through jewettdilley@gmail.com.

The book also is available on Amazon, some bookstores, and directly from the publisher’s website at www.booklocker.com.

“I try to make it clear at the book signings that Dad and I are not there to sell a book so much as to sell a concept,” Dilley says. “Once these voices are no longer with us, the stories are no longer there either. It behooves each of us to stop what we are doing in order to make memoirs like this happen.”