Jerry Beverland perseveres through personal tragedy

Jerry Beverland sits in his Oldsmar home recently reflecting on his family’s history of sudden, devastating losses.

Jerry Beverland’s life is, literally and figuratively, an open book.

The author of four books on Oldsmar’s history and a longtime local lawmaker is always quick to relay a story, or a mini history lesson, during Oldsmar City Council meetings from his decades of serving his community, and he has never shied away from speaking out on a topic he feels passionately about, which often include his “beautiful wife, Wanda” and his unbridled love for his city.

But one subject Beverland isn’t so quick to discuss is the amount of personal tragedy he and Wanda have suffered during their 61-year marriage, including the death of eldest son, Robyn, in 1998 due to complications from a birth disorder and their loss of their teenage granddaughter, who was struck and killed by a motorist in Clearwater more than a decade ago.

Jerry Beverland and his wife, Wanda, during his most recent Oldsmar City Council swearing-in ceremony in March 2016.

Recently, Beverland’s private grief clashed with his public duties when his youngest son, Shawn, had to be rushed to the hospital on Sept. 5 while Jerry was preparing for the evening’s council meeting; he left City Hall and rushed to his son’s bedside in time to say goodbye, but doctors were unable to save the 53-year-old, who suffered from the same debilitating illness as his older brother.

Two weeks later, Beverland attend the council meeting, noting Shawn would’ve wanted him to be there.

“I want to thank everybody who helped my son,” Beverland said while choking back tears on Tuesday, Sept. 19. “I really didn’t want to be here tonight, mayor, but Shawn would’ve wanted me to.”

Despite his display of courage and strength, the 82-year-old recently admitted he often doesn’t feel strong, nor does he profess to have all the answers as to why so many tragedies have befallen his family.

In a candid interview, Beverland opened up about the tragic losses and the effect they’ve had on their lives, and he tried to explain how he and Wanda find the strength to continue in the wake of such an onslaught of personal heartache.

(Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and continuity)

Talk about the syndrome your sons were afflicted with since birth.

Robyn and Shawn were both born with what’s called Wolfram Syndrome, a rare disorder that causes diabetes, blindness and deafness in children. With Shawn, we knew what to expect, but with Robyn we had no idea he had a problem at the time. But this syndrome is wicked. He never crawled, so he had no coordination. He was losing his sight. We took him to eye doctors twice a year and they told us he just needed glasses. When he was 15 we took him to get his driver’s permit and Wanda came home crying and said they told her he was legally blind. I confronted our regular doctor and said, ‘Is he legally blind?’ Silence. He finally said yes. I could’ve beaten him to death. All this time they’re telling me he could see, he just needed glasses!

Jerry Beverland looks at a painting by his son, Robyn, that hangs at the entrance to the study in his Oldsmar home.

One day the school called and said they couldn’t find Robyn. He was hiding in a bathroom because he had bladder control problems and he wet his pants, and the PE teacher found out and made him run up and down the steps. I went to school and chewed him out and immediately pulled him out of school. They told me he was an idiot! He had an IQ of 110. They told us we should institutionalize him and we said no damn way! He’s smarter than any of you! He was a smart kid, but he never had a chance.

Robyn went on to become a nationally recognized artist who touched many lives before his death at the age of 41. How do you explain his talents despite his inability to see?

I can’t. I can’t explain it. He loved to paint, but he painted like a child. I got him some wood and he painted on it. Wanda took his paintings to a show in Atlanta, and a museum director saw them and he cried. Then he said I’m going to help you get these paintings shown.

Jerry Beverland sifts through some of his son, Robyn’s, paintings that are store in the garage. Beverland said he plans to sell most of the artwork soon.

Robyn became one of the most famous folk artists in America. He did the 1996 Olympic holiday card for the Atlanta Games, his work was displayed in hundreds of shows and was bought by politicians and celebrities.

Robyn touched more people in his 41 years than I could touch in five lifetimes. A woman called us once and said she was going to commit suicide, but after reading Robyn’s story in the newspaper, she became inspired and changed her mind. Robyn became famous and parents realized that’s what’s wrong with my child. They never knew what was wrong with them until they heard Robyn’s story. That’s part of his legacy.

How painful was it to live through both Robyn’s and Shawn’s passing?

We knew what was going to happen, but even knowing, you’re never really prepared for it.

We found Robyn in his studio apartment in a coma just before Christmas in 98. His lungs had filled with fluid. We sat next to him for six weeks while he was in ICU. One night he opened his eyes, recognized us and smiled. Eight months later, he died.

Jerry Beverland shows one of the paintings by his son, Robyn, that is displayed in the study of his Oldsmar home.

Shawn liked to build birdhouses. He was the youngest human ever to walk on the roof of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. He would never show how Robyn’s death affected him. The last couple of years, he was going downhill, and Wanda knew. I had a hard time accepting things. I refused to believe Robyn was going to die, but with Shawn, it wasn’t as tragic. I don’t know why. Shawn did have ten more years, and we knew it was going to happen, but the pain is still there.

I was at City Hall and Wanda called and I left. He was fine that morning. He went to the doctor and they said his diabetes was doing great. But six years ago he spent a full year in the hospital and recovering from a choking incident, and they said the next time he wouldn’t survive. That night, he chewed on something and couldn’t get rid of it. He choked to death. Try to live with that. We lived with this for 50 years, with little understanding of it.

The pain of the boys’ passing was compounded by the loss of your granddaughter, Ashley, in 2006 when she was just 16 years old. How did that affect you and the rest of the family?

My granddaughter was brilliant. She was taking veterinary courses at Tarpon Springs High School, her photos and writings had been published, and her goal was to be an attorney, a vet and work for National Geographic. She was going to fly to Washington, DC in two weeks to be a page for (then US Congressman) Mike Bilirakis. Whatever she wanted to do, she had the ability to accomplish it.

A wall in Jerry Beverland’s study is devoted to his late granddaughter, Ashley, who was killed by a motorist in 2006 at the age of 16.

That Saturday, I bought her a pickup truck she wanted, a two-tone Chevy. She pulled out, then came back and said to Wanda and me, I just want you to know how much I love you.’ She got back in her truck, and that’s the last time I saw her alive. Later I had six police officers at my door and they said you have to come to Bayfront (Medical Center). They told me she was skateboarding in Clearwater and she got hit by a 19-year-old girl on a cell phone. It was nobody’s fault, but they both paid a price.

Jerry Beverland looks at a photo of his granddaughter, Ashely, who was struck and killed by a motorist in 2006 when she was 16 years old.

It wasn’t easy. I sat in my chair and cried like a baby. I’m the one who bought her the skateboard. Whatever she wanted, her Granny and Grumpy would get it for her. I once told her I would give my life for her, and I wish I could. We never really found out what exactly happened. My daughter still hasn’t handled it yet. She never really got over it, and I’m not sure that that I have, either.  I didn’t ask questions I wanted to because if I didn’t get the answers I wanted I knew I’d become bitter.

That brings me to my last question: How have you and Wanda have been able to overcome so much tragedy and adversity while remaining strong and continuing to move on?

If not for the faith and strength of my beautiful wife, I’m not sure I could’ve got through it. People say, ‘how do you get through it?’ and I really don’t know. Sometimes you question how fair is life? Define fair. Define life. I don’t think you can define either one.

I didn’t handle everything right. I threatened to beat up doctors, PE teachers, other kids. How do you handle it when you don’t know what’s going on? I realized my sons are going to die and I can’t do anything about it.

A note from Jerry beverland’s late granddaughter, Ashley, hangs in the study of his Oldsmar home.

Wanda would say God gave us those two sons because we would take care of them. Who knows? I always said you don’t do anything by yourself. On council, we do it as a team. Wanda has always been my strength. She’s a lot stronger than me. Sometimes you find out you’re not as strong as you really are.

Sometimes I think back on that moment when I was at Robyn’s bedside and he woke up and looked at me like, ‘Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll handle it for you.’ And that’s where I find some peace.”

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At the conclusion of our conversation, Beverland pointed to a vase of wilting flowers on the table and paraphrased a poem stating, “’There is life, they grow, they bloom in their beauty, they wilt, they fade away, and then they die and are forgotten.'”

“So sad, but true,” he said.

Jerry Beverland is currently publishing a fact-based historical novel about a year in the lives of his great-grandfather and great-grandmother in the late 1870s.

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