IN LOVING MEMORY OF
NANCY MERCER KEITH GERARD, wife of Steve
Gerard, mother and grandmother, Johnny Mercers Niece, may she rest in
Christ Church Bulletin (5-17-2013)(Nancy Gerard's Funeral)
E Mail received from
Dianne S Thurmond on May 13, 2011
Heaven rejoices this morning welcoming its newest
angel, Nancy Mercer Keith Gerard. Nancy passed away quietly at 6:05 p.m.
yesterday. Steve had just brought her inside from the patio. He said she
died very suddenly and didn't suffer. That is a joy for all of us who will
miss her dearly.
Please know how much each of you helped the family
always being there with your prayers, love and support. They want you to
know how grateful they are and the comfort is has brought them. I know you
will continue in the days ahead.
All the best,
The family would like to express their
appreciation to Hospice Savannah, Inc., for their love and support for
Nancy. Contributions may be sent to Hospice, Inc., or The Friends
of Johnny Mercer, Inc. 1 Oglethorpe Professional Blvd., Suite 102, Savannah,
Nancy and Steve Gerard
Ga. — (text: courtesy of Georgia Public Radio)
became the late songwriter Johnny Mercer's most vocal advocate in his native
city. Savannah residents are remembering a vocal advocate for one of the city's
most famous native sons.
Nancy Gerard, a niece of the prolific late songwriter Johnny Mercer, died on
Gerard kept her uncle's legacy alive through media and school appearances.
"His father once asked him, 'Well, son, how do you do this?'" Gerard
told GPB in 2008. "And he said, 'Well, pop, I just get in tune with the
Mercer wrote classic American tunes such as "Autumn Leaves,"
"Moon River" and "The Days of Wine and Roses."
She was 72 years old.
Her family provided GPB with the following memorial, written by Savannah
writer Betty Darby:
Scrapbooks generally are a strange mix of ego and sentiment – little
collections of paper ephemera of little interest even to their own subjects
within a few years of being stuck together. But Nancy Mercer Keith Gerard’s
scrapbook is a different family treasure entirely. This aging compilation of
newspaper clippings and photos and invitations was put together by Nancy in
the early 1970s as a sort of introduction of herself to the father she had not
seen since infancy. Thirty-some years of a classic “old Savannah” childhood
and the young woman it nurtured are displayed there to show Henry “Hank”
Keith a glimpse of what he missed in his oldest child’s life. And, along the
way, she captured a bit of what it must have been like to “grow up Mercer” in
the history-loving town where her beloved Uncle Bubba was Savannah’s favorite
son, Johnny Mercer.
Steve Gerard, Nancy’s husband of 44 years, tells the story of the scrapbook.
Nancy’s mother was Johnny’s sister, his only sibling to survive childhood.
That gave Nancy her direct blood link to an old Savannah name whose fortunes
had been restored by the enduring talents and success of the Oscar-winning
lyricist – and Johnny set great store by family ties, as we will see.
Unfortunately, as present and solid as her mother’s side of the family was
during Nancy’s growing up, her father’s side was absent. Divorce split the
little family up within months of Nancy’s birth. Within another year, World
War II scattered the men of her father’s generation across the globe. Nancy
would not see Hank or even know much about him until she was 29 years old.
Johnny – Uncle Bubba - served instead as her virtual father.
Nancy enjoyed a happy youth, remembers childhood friend Stratton Leopold.
“We talked about this all the time. Christmas mornings on Gwinnett Street
were vitally remembered by the sound of roller skates on brick – that’s what
the streets there were paved with at the time. That was our memory of Christmas
morning, the sound of skates, the kind that you locked to your shoes,”
Those roller-skating skills came in handy some 20 years later, when Nancy’s
colleagues at the Bronx veterans’ hospital thought it would be fun to see
what a freshly transplanted Southerner could do on the ice at a nearby
neighborhood skating rink. She may have been new to the ice, but her dancer’s
background from Savannah Little Theatre productions and her childhood
roller-skating days kept her upright – and attracted the attention of Steve
Gerard, her future husband, a New York lawyer just launching his career.
“Nancy grew up on Gwinnett at Lincoln [streets], and I was at Gwinnett on
Habersham,” recalls Stratton. “Johnny was friends with my dad and he was
always in the shop when he was in town.”
The shop he refers to is Leopold’s Ice Cream Shop, a Savannah classic he has
recreated (albeit several blocks away) after returning to Savannah in the
midst of a successful movie production career. And the original shop figures
in the story of two friends. Growing up, the two worked together in a number
of Savannah theatrical performances, both Little Theatre and at Armstrong
College. When life took Nancy in and out of town, she would announce her
return to Savannah by bursting through the ice cream shop door with a
rendition of one of the musical numbers they liked, be it from “Leave It to
Jane” or “Oklahoma.”
A Brief Time on the Boards
Nancy’s career was as an occupational therapist with a particular talent for
working with children, and she practiced both in hospitals and in private
practice in New Jersey. She practiced at St. Joseph's/Candler Hospital in
Savannah when Steve retired 13 years ago in New Jersey and the couple
relocated to Nancy’s hometown.
But for a few shining years in her youth, Nancy was a star of the stage, at
least in Savannah, which had a thriving local theater scene at the time.
“We did plays together at Armstrong [Junior College] back in those days,”
recalls Stratton. “I remember doing Leave it to Jane and we did Aristophanes’
The Birds and we did summer theater out at Barbee’s Pavilion out at Isle of
Hope. In the summer, Little Theatre put on a summer musical.”
So, was Nancy any good at these amateur theatricals?
“She was great. I had a fatal weakness for dancers. She was very talented as
an actress and especially singing. She had an amazing voice,” Stratton says.
C. Robert (Bob) Jones remembers Nancy’s performing years well.
“I directed The Little Theatre there between 1962 and 1966, and Nancy
appeared in two of the musicals (The King and I and The Pajama Game) during
that period--and did lights and sound on several other shows. She was an
absolute delight in all of those associations--fun, upbeat, energetic . . .
and so enormously talented. She became a special friend during that time, and
has remained so for the past 50 years,” Bob writes in an email when asked
about the young performer.
Bob - who is writing a book about his own Savannah experiences, in which the
Mercer family plays no small role – strikes a nostalgic note when he writes
about his former young star. “I regret that neither Steve nor their children
ever got to see her at that particular point in her life. She was quite
magical onstage--actor, singer, dancer. She had it all.”
However, Steve did get to see her perform in New Jersey in shows such as
“West Side Story,” “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music” and “Fiddler on the
Nancy’s poignant scrapbook opens with pictures of her as a baby, including a
shot of her wearing a bulky cloth diaper and a smile, captioned “First summer
In the ’40s and ’50s, before air conditioning was a given for even the
well-to-do, the hallmark of a privileged childhood was to summer at Tybee
Island’s beach. Judging from the scrapbook’s evidence, most if not all of
Nancy’s childhood summers were spent there.
There’s further proof of privilege: elementary school photos at the Pape School, which had morphed into Savannah Country Day
School by the time Nancy graduated in the late 1950s. Then there’s the pièce
de résistance of Savannah social life of the time: an invitation to a
debutant ball on Christmas night, 1959, and a photo of Nancy and her cousins
in their white gowns.
So how did a child of a single-parent family, rare in those days and in that particular social strata, gain entrée to the likes of
cotillions and private schools? Look no further than Uncle Bubba, who took
family responsibilities seriously and, thanks to his flourishing career,
could afford the perks of privilege for his only niece, says Steve of his
wife’s famous relative.
But back to the scrapbook. Remember, it was composed for a specific purpose –
to reintroduce two strangers who were father and daughter.
Steve takes up the story at this point, and it goes like this:
He and Nancy were now married and had begun raising their own family in New
York, where Steve’s law practice was centered. Nancy was now curious about
her own father, of whom she had no memories. Steve agreed to help her find
the long-lost Hank Keith.
It is easy to forget, in these days of Internet search capabilities, just how
hard it used to be for a private citizen to find someone they’d lost touch
with decades earlier. It was slow, hard work with no guarantee of success.
Steve remembers both Nancy and himself putting in hours at Rockefeller
Center, which in those days maintained a collection of telephone directories
from around the country. No luck. Steve put the task to a credit agency he
was familiar with, and they found some folks with that name but not Nancy’s
father. Then, Steve used his Army Reserve officer status to inquire about
Hank’s service record, since one of the few things the couple knew about him
was that he had been in the Army Air Corps.
The military link brought one nugget of information: the California title
insurance company where Hank had gone to work after his World War II service
20-something years earlier. What were the odds that he was still there? Never
heard of him, the switchboard operator at the company said. (Turns out, it
was a temp operator who was working that particular day.)
So the search was pretty much dead-ended. But a few months later, the credit
agency called Steve with the news that they thought they had something. Hank
had remarried and the telephone was listed in his wife’s name. The wife
answered the phone and sent Steve on to the same insurance company he had
tried earlier – the one where Hank had worked for 20-plus years. They had
Long, emotional, tearful phone calls followed, and a week later Nancy,
18-month-old daughter Lily in tow, set out for the West Coast and a
father/daughter reunion and to meet half-siblings she had not known existed.
Steve remembers that despite the fact it didn’t begin until Nancy was 29, the
two enjoyed an excellent relationship through the rest of Hank Keith’s life.
A touch of Johnny
Johnny Mercer served as father figure for his niece and bankrolled Nancy’s
college education, too, Steve says. He remembers his wife telling him that,
when her career as an occupational therapist was established, she approached
Mercer and said it was time she began paying him back. He assured her there
was no need, “but promise me if I am ever down and out, you’ll pass the hat
for me,” Gerard said.
Of course Nancy never had to pass the hat for her uncle. But she did perform
a valuable service for him, even after his death in 1976. Fame comes with a
price, and part of that price is gossip. Nancy took a vocal, personal
approach to celebrate and preserve Johnny Mercer’s memory in not only larger
musical circles but in his hometown as well. Always eager to respect her
uncle’s wishes, she keeps his philanthropic generosity private and continues
to dismiss scandalmongers.
For the Johnny Mercer Centennial in 2009, she rallied the family. She was
always available for interviews spotlighting her Uncle Bubba. She served on
the city’s centennial committee, co-chaired the statue committee and was an
active member of The Friends of Johnny Mercer, Inc.
All of Nancy’s memorial work had an unexpected side effect, recalls Jim
Corwin, Johnny’s grandson. It brought together two segments of the family –
Nancy and most of her children on the East Coast, Mercer’s daughter Amanda
and her children and grandchildren on the West Coast.
“No one was mad at anybody, or anything like that,
but it’s a big continent,” Jim said. The relatives had drifted apart, but
Nancy’s zeal reunited them.
For her four children – David, Robbie, Steve, and Lily, - and three
grandchildren, this daughter of Savannah still loves the joys of her youth:
music, ice cream, family, friends, and laughter.
Yes, perhaps Nancy did end up “passing the hat” on behalf of her beloved
uncle – not for money, however, but for a renewal to “Ac-Cen-tchu-ate the Positive” in good times and bad along life’s