URBANA — What started out more than 30 years ago as a walloping good birthday party that Jerry Hess threw for himself has developed into an east Urbana neighborhood tradition.
And after a one-year hiatus for the pandemic, Jerry and Nancy Hess are ready to fire up the fish fryer this afternoon.
“He’ll be 87 and it’s his birthday party,” Nancy said. “The younger generation in our family love it and bring extra people. That’s a good compliment if you get the younger people to join in.”
No problem there. In fact, based on past attendance, the couple expects as many as 80. Their annual fish fry falls on the first Saturday in May, close to Jerry’s birthday.
Last year’s event was replaced with a drive-by parade for Jerry that featured 25 cars, two fire engines, three bicycles and one awesome birthday cake created by a granddaughter.
Nice as that was, they missed the fish fry and visiting with guests.
“We invite all the neighbors,” Jerry said.
“The new ones don’t come. We’re doing our part, people,” Nancy added. “We’ve got a lot of turnover in this neighborhood.”
Included on past guest lists were Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin, former police Chief Pat Connolly, whoever is on police patrol in that neighborhood, and the Urbana firefighters who work at the Philo Road station.
“They haven’t come, but they know us,” Nancy said of the firefighters.
Nancy laughed while telling the story of trip Jerry took to Meijer earlier this year.
“He came out and there was a police car behind him with the lights on. He got out and talked to the policeman. The policeman said, ‘When is your fish fry?’” she said.
On Friday, and for several days before, the couple was preparing their Easy Street home for the fish-fry fest, which will feature about 40 pounds of whitefish dipped in a tasty Zatarain’s coating and fried in a cooker in their garage. There will be tables and chairs and a tent in the driveway and yard.
James Winston, Jerry’s barber in the nearby Sunnycrest shopping center, said this will be the 10th year he and his wife, Molly, have attended the Hesses’ fest.
“I met Jerry when I opened my barber shop here. Jerry was one of my early customers,” said Winston, who’s run Service Barber Shop for 10 years.
A Black man whose clientele is about 60 percent Black and 40 percent White, Winston is a wonderful diplomat who has been doing his part to improve business and life for the people in the Sunnycrest area.
“He is one heck of a gardener. He’s not really a gardener, he’s a farmer. He’s got a green body,” Winston said admirably of his client and friend.
A few years ago, Winston persuaded Jerry Hess to consult on the Lierman Avenue neighborhood garden.
“We were a bunch of amateurs. I asked him to help. He came over and looked at it, and it hasn’t been the same since,” Winston said.
That willingness to help and share is a key element of the annual fish fry.
On Friday, Jerry and Nancy Hess were busy preparing 10 pounds of German potato salad and another 2 pounds of pasta salad. Nancy said guests usually bring side dishes, too.
“One of our friends brings baked beans. If the beans aren’t here, people will ask, ‘Where are the beans?’ I’ll say ‘Chicago,’” she said. “Another friend brings a big Texas sheet cake.”
Married for 66 years, the Hesses have lived in Urbana since 1960 and in their house since 1968.
They have two sons, two daughters, six grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild with another on the way.
Most of them will be there Saturday. The children have specific roles they play in pulling off the party.
One son who is a mason checks the garage floor for cracks and patches those, another son obtains the fish and cooks it, one daughter cleans the tables and chairs, and the other daughter is the go-to person for whatever needs to be done, said the proud parents.
Usually, the feedbag runs for around four hours or until the fish runs out, Jerry said.
“You get to talking and swapping stores and the time goes fast,” Nancy said.
Winston just knows it’s a wonderful event to promote loving one’s neighbors.
“What we are going through now racially … if we could get 10 of these in every city in this country, we could straighten this thing out,” he said.