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Proud Panther, Rebel 'Gerald' left impression on thousands of students
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This photo from an Effingham County Middle School yearbook shows Jaril Williams, known widely as “Gerald,” entertaining students by dancing during a pep rally.
He was just such a blessing to have. It will never be the same."
Barbara Scott, 1979 Effingham County High School graduate

SPRINGFIELD — Jaril Williams wasn’t a certified instructor. Still, he managed to teach important lessons about fun and generosity to thousands of students.

Fondly known as “Gerald,” Williams, 70, served the Effingham County School District as a custodian for 41 years, primarily at Effingham County Middle School. He was a very proud Panther and Effingham County High School Rebel.

“He would do anything for anybody,” said Tara Aiken, an Effingham County High School teacher. “He was super nice. Everybody that knew Gerald loved Gerald.”

Aiken’s memory bank is stashed with Gerald stories, many of which stem from her days as a middle school student more than two decades ago. Her children got to know him when they attended middle school, too.

“When I was in high school, we didn’t really have pep rallies,” Aiken said. “At the middle school, though, he would dance (during pep rallies). He loved him some ‘Achy Breaky Heart.’”

 Gerald, who has prostate cancer and is receiving hospice care, loved to perform. He could magically transform a broom into a dance partner or microphone, a whimsical skill he showed just a few days ago to fellow residents at Lakeview Manor Retirement Home.

Barbara Scott, who works in the Effingham County High School copy room, has known Gerald longer than she cares to admit. He had been at the school three years when she graduated in 1979.

“That’s when the students got to sit out front and eat under the pine trees,” she said. “Gerald would be out there. He would rake that pine straw. I always wondered how he got the pine straw so high. 

“Every year, there was more, more and more.”

Like Aiken, Scott remembers Gerald’s love of music.

“He always had music in his vehicle and he always had candy in his vehicle for the kids,” she said. “He kept candy in his pockets, too. He was never found without candy.

“Anytime there as a school function, Gerald would be there. Once in awhile, he would dress up in his white suit. Everybody would back up and let Gerald have the floor. He could do some dancing with ‘Achy Breaky Heart.’”

Scott’s sons also got to experience Gerald’s uniqueness.

“They would talk about him and the candy he had. He was just a blessing to have,” Scott said. “It will never be the same.”

Scott said she can’t remember a single instance of seeing Gerald, who retired in 2017, seated.

“He never sat down,” she said.

Like Aiken and Scott, Julie Montgomery broke into a wide smile as she shared her Gerald memories. She is Effingham County High School’s receptionist and a former Effingham County Middle School student.

“His pockets were always bulging with candy,” Montgomery said. “If he liked you, he would stick his hand in his pocket, pull it out real slow and throw the candy at you.”

Gerald favored some students but he loved them all, Montgomery said.

“And I think everybody loved him,” she said. “He was a sweet man.”

Gerald held down other jobs, including one at a Springfield gas station, Dan’s Shop & Go, for many years. He displayed the same fun-loving, helpful demeanor at those as he did in the schools.

“He cleaned all over,” Aiken said. “At restaurants, if there was leftover food, he would take it to people who needed it after he finished cleaning.”

Gerald’s generosity extended to teachers and coworkers. He would frequently give them homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers, and occasionally tiny fried fish.

One reason high school students loved Gerald is that he would snitch French fries from the cafeteria and distribute them.  

Shirley Milton, the head custodian at the high school, has known Gerald since she was in the ninth grade. She remembers him as a mischief maker whose generosity wasn’t always so evident.

“He always had candy,” she said. “He would give you a piece but if you tried to get another one he would take off. We would try to catch him.”

Despite his playful display of stinginess, Gerald never forgot his coworkers. He brought them drinks, potato chips, cake and, of course, candy regularly.

Milton said Gerald, following his cancer diagnosis, didn’t always feel well when he displayed his dance moves for students. Despite his pain, he always put on a show.

“He could move,” she said. “During a talent show, he got out there and did his thing. I told him, ‘Don’t you ever tell me your legs are hurting again!”

Milton, who visits him regularly, said Gerald enjoyed playing tricks on her when they worked together.

“He would scare you to death,” she said. “He would put a balloon under your buggy and when you’d push it — you don’t know it’s under there and you don’t see Gerald — it would pop and scare you. Then you’d see Gerald come running around the corner laughing.”

One of Milton’s coworkers grew so skittish that she would lock Gerald in the gym when he was at work in there so that he couldn’t pull an unwelcome surprise on her.

“She told me, ‘I can’t take it,’” Milton said. “That Gerald was something else.”

Milton attempted to get revenge on Gerald a few times. She and some coworkers frightened him by donning a mask.

“He was scared of masks,” Milton said with a hearty chuckle.

Gerald was also afraid of dogs. Knowing this, some students would bark at him to give him a jolt.

Snakes, on the other hand, didn’t bother Gerald at all. He rounded up a few during his career on campus, including one in a classroom.

After “Achy Breaky Heart,” Gerald’s favorite tune was an unlikely one — “Take this Job and Shove It.” He belted it out frequently, especially near the end of each school year.

“He would sing it at the top of his lungs,” said Cassanda Andrews, an Effingham County Middle School secretary who recalls Gerald from her days at the high school in the late 1980s. “You could hear it over the buffer as he was buffing the floors.”

Although though that song title suggests Gerald might have harbored some unhappiness with his job, nothing could be further from the truth. His personnel file is teeming with commendations that reflect his love for it. 

“I can tell you these words as I go through it — ‘hard worker,’ ‘good worker,’ ‘thanks for your extra help,’ ‘always giving everybody extra help,’” said Karla Sasser, human resources specialist for the Effingham County Board of Education.

“‘He always goes above and beyond;’ ‘he keeps the school very clean;’ ‘give him a rake and a mop and he will get that job done;’ ‘I enjoy working with him.’ That’s from coworkers and administrators,” Sasser said. “Another one says, ‘He has a positive attitude and is willing to help the school staff and operations. He is an iconic presence at ECMS and is loved by all the students and staff.”

Sasser’s personal opinion of Gerald sounded similar.

“He was so pleasant and so hardworking,” she said. “He’s been there so long and through so many generations of kids.”

Milton can’t imagine what the schools will be like without him.

“It’s not going to be the same,” she said. “Gerald was the greatest.”