Elizabeth Higgins
Eagle Reporter
Monday, Jul 21, 2008
Jerry Dollar has led a full life as an instructor at Bevill State Community College for 43 years, military veteran, researcher at SRI in Birmingham and even tutor for famous child stars. - Photo by: Elizabeth Higgins

Jerry Dollar, associate dean for academic transfer programs at Bevill State Community College, has led a life unlike many others.

From working at the Pentagon, to aiding his wife in tutoring famous child actors, to even helping launch the careers of many local professionals as an instructor at Bevill State, Dollar has made his mark.

Dollar was born in Dora in 1936 during The Great Depression era.

“It was a coal mining town when I was growing up. I grew up during World War II. I remember walking home from school as the war was ending and everybody shouting, ‘The war is over! The war is over!’” Dollar said. “I remember the war years. I remember rationing. The primary employer in that area was Alabama Byproduct Corporation, a mine which has long been closed called Somerset. There was a commissary and doctor’s office. You were paid in company money, so you had to go to the company store to spend the money.”

When Dollar graduated from Dora High School in 1954, the mines began closing, laying off workers and tearing down the company stores. These events left Dollar unable to afford to go to college that fall.

“My father had been laid off with the mines closing. He was in his late 50s at the time and at that time there was no protection in industry. When the mines closed, you were out of a job. You couldn’t bump somebody, you couldn’t go for another one. You just had to find a new position. At 57, they didn’t want people that age. They wanted younger people. So it was difficult for us,” Dollar said.
His parents opened a small restaurant in Dora serving hamburgers to support themselves. One of his parents’ regulars Mack James, who owned James Lumber Company, gave Dollar a job giving him a chance to earn money for college.

“The job was to shovel a flat bed railroad car full of sand out into the sand bin,” Dollar said. “After a couple of days of doing that, he said, ‘Well, I might have a couple of other things for you to do. Plan to come in tomorrow.’ From that time until the time I left to go to college in January, the only day I missed was Sundays.”

After Dollar began Florence State College (which is now the University of North Alabama) as a pre-engineering student, he would return home periodically to work at the lumber company.

Dollar said he was happy with the prospect of engineering at first, but had a change of heart later.

“Math was always something that I thought was exciting and as an engineer you applied math. So that was something I was interested in doing because it made sense — numbers and lines,” Dollar said. “At the end of the first two years, I would have to transfer. It was a mistake in hindsight that I didn’t transfer. But I began to weigh the fact that I like it here and there’s never been anyone in my family that has gone to college. So I was kind of in deep water thinking ‘What do you do with your life?’”

Dollar said he decided to change his major to mathematics and chemistry and graduated with a double major. He said another important decision he made at that time was to remain in the ROTC program, which lead him to a career with the military.

In January of 1959, Dollar graduated and was commissioned as Second Lieutenant of the United States Army. Dollar said he would not be called to military duty until May, so he decided to spend the next four months teaching third and fourth grade math and science in Curry.

“So I finished there in the middle of May and left for Fort Seal, Okla. I went through the officer basic course and I was one of the three honor graduates. I went to a unit and remained there for six months,” he said.

After his tour of duty, he returned to Alabama to find a job and wound up filling another teacher’s position teaching seventh grade at Sumiton School.

Research at SRI

After teaching at Sumiton for a year, Dollar said he began trying to find jobs elsewhere to use his love of math and science. He said he kept getting turned down for jobs because he lacked experience. In 1961, he interviewed for a job at the Southern Research Institute (SRI) in Birmingham, a non-profit research facility that is now an affiliate of UAB.

“The guy who interviewed me was the chair of the Auburn chemistry department. His name was Bill William Sheehan. He said, ‘Well, we were looking for people with experience.’ At that point, I had heard that too many times and I said, ‘Dr. Sheehan, how do you expect a person who has never had a job have experience if you don’t give them a chance?’” Dollar said. “He didn’t respond and about three or four days later I got a phone call saying, ‘You got the job.’”

Dollar’s job was to prepare uniforms that shielded the effects of nerve gas for the U.S. Department of Defense.

“Another one was making and spinning and testing super tenacity polymers for outer space application,” Dollar said. “A polymer is something you make thread out of. So what we were doing is making the compound, then we were actually spinning it into thread. From the thread, we were testing it to see if it had enough strength and enough heat resistance to be used for outer space such as space uniforms and things of that nature.”

Dollar begins Bevill career

While serving in the military, Dollar met Dr. David Rowland, who was president of Walker College, now Bevill State Community College’s Jasper campus.

“We continued to be in the same unit and see each other for quite awhile and he offered me a job,” Dollar said. “At that time, I had been at SRI for about four or five years. I was not going to move up in the company a lot. It was not something I was as happy with as I could’ve been. It was a good time for me to leave.”

Dollar began teaching chemistry at Walker College in 1965. In his 43 years at the college, he has taught many local doctors, dentists, pharmacists and other professionals such as Dr. Steve Johnson, Dr. Mike Brasfield, Dr. Bill Yates, Dr. Jerry Boshell, Dr. Stan Eggers, Dr. Ray Cooner, T.J. Langley, Ken Guin and many more.

“He scared me to death. He not only was a good teacher, but he commanded and demanded respect. We really didn’t realize then what he was really teaching us. But, I would’ve never made it through pharmacy school if I hadn’t had him because I never had chemistry in high school,” Julian Maddox, pharmacist at Glover’s Pharmacy in Cordova, said. “When I got to Samford (University), I realized he had given me such a foundation in chemistry that it far exceeded what the teachers over there were doing. The quality and depth of his teaching was so good. He taught us so well that he overlapped into so many other classes that when I got into Samford, I was tutoring in one class that wasn’t even anything I had at Walker College...because when I got over there I had already had it. He was probably the best teacher I had at Samford or Walker.”

Military tours and the Pentagon

While teaching at Walker College, he served a one-year tour of duty at the Army War College. He also served tours during the summers at Walker College and eventually moved up to a full colonel position.

In 1984, Dollar spent two years at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. as one of the 15 officers working on a study called Professional Development of the Officers Study, which determined what needed to be done to prepare officers for wartime between 1984 and 2023. Dollar said the country had been in peacetime since Vietnam, the officers that had war experience were retiring. According to Dollar, the military needed to develop better leadership in case of war.

“We worked straight out of the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army’s office,” Dollar said. “On this group of people, I had some of the brightest minds you could ever find. We had occasions to meet with all the highest rankings like the Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs.”

Tutoring child stars

In 1976, Dollar married his wife Linda Carmichael and adopted her son Luke, who has been recognized by National Geographic as one of the top 15 explorers for his study of the fossa in Madagascar among many other recognitions.

Dollar’s wife was experienced in theater and his son began to show a talent for acting and singing at a young age. At the age of 9, he had already starred in several school plays and got a role in “Godspell,” which was put on by the children at an army base where Dollar was stationed. He also went on to do a musical with Jim Nabors, a dinner theater in Washington D.C., played as Tiny Tim in the Birmingham Children’s Theater, played several parts at the Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery and many others.

“We said, ‘If Luke is going to do anything professionally, now is the time he needs to be in New York.’ And so she got with Linda Latham (a Jasper resident who had two children, Brad and Stacey, interested in theater),” Dollar said.

The two mothers decided to go to New York and “pound the pavement” looking for acting jobs for their children. Linda Dollar’s job was to train the children and Linda Latham would keep up the apartment. The Latham children received roles in the Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas show as Tiny Tim and a ballerina.

“Luke and his mom spent every day behind the stage at Radio City Music Hall from the summer of 1986 until January of the following year,” Dollar said. “That was a wonderful experience for him. Luke had several call backs, but didn’t get any roles. But he was not a tiny child. We soon realized in the theater and the movie industry they want older, tiny children because they can take direction and understand, and they can be made to look younger. So his dilemma was he didn’t fit the mold they were looking for.”

While Luke was attending school in his older years, Dollar said his wife asked him if he would like to still pursue acting and he turned it down knowing that lifestyle wasn’t for him.

Luke Dollar is currently in Madagascar continuing his studies of the fossa and is a biology professor at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina.

Dollar’s wife, who passed away July 15, 2007, made connections while in New York and was offered a job tutoring child actors in plays like “Into the Light” and “Les Miserables,” where she made friends with several interesting people including master violinist Isaac Stern and Karen Kristopherson, the sister of Kris Kristopherson.

This lead her to tutoring famous child stars such as Danielle Fishel of “Boy Meets World,” Fred Savage, Eric Sullivan of “Malcolm in the Middle,” Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Trachtenburg.

One very talented actor his wife tutored was Haley Joel Osment, who has starred in several movies including “The Sixth Sense” and “Pay It Forward.”

“They in fact made a video. Joel is playing like he’s discovered a fossa and he’s contacting Dr. Luke Dollar about the fossa,” Dollar said. “What he had to do is build a skit as part of his education, so he became a fossa hunter.”

Her last job was tutoring Kaitlin Cullum, who played Libby Kelly on “Grace Under Fire.” Dollar said his wife became close friends with Brett Butler, who played the starring role as Grace.

“Her and Brett became very, very good friends because Brett is from Alabama,” he said. “We’d go places together. Brett had use of Disney’s jet whenever she wanted to use it, so when she was coming this direction Linda would fly back with her.”

Dollar said he would sometimes tutor some of these child actors in subjects in which his wife wasn’t as knowledgeable. One of his famous students was Anna Paquin, who won an Academy Award in 1994 for her performance in “The Piano.” Dollar tutored Paquin while she was playing the part of Claire Spence in “Finding Forrester.”

“Anna was a senior taking pre-calculus and general physics. Linda was not really up to snuff on these kinds of things, so she called and said, ‘Jerry, can you come to New York for about a week?’ So I went up there to tutor Anna on the set,” he said. “She was just the nicest person you could imagine — friendly and outgoing. In the process of it, we would go onto the set where you could see them filming. While I was there someone said, ‘Hey, you go stand over there.’ So I’m in the movie.

“They did another movie here in Walker County, “Roses for the Rich,” and I was in that one too. I had a couple of occasions to go to Los Angeles to do some of the things she (Linda Dollar) was doing because she got a lot of folks in Jasper on to shows she was on, “Grace Under Fire” particularly. They could talk for years about that.”

Dollar said he and his wife discovered in their many times observing the sets on Broadway and in L.A. that the children were sometimes not treated appropriately by their parents.

“Many times parents are real problems,” he said. “The most powerful person on a set or at a Broadway performance is the tutor because anything that happens that is inappropriate for the child, the tutor can stop it. So she had to deal with parents. Parents became problems because most of them cared very little about what their child was able to do with their lives in later years. They only cared about what they could do for them. So learning and doing what they should do to maintain their academic progress was not important. There were a lot of parents that didn’t like her because...she would make the kids do work. That eventually made her want to get out of it because it ceased to be something you could have fun with.”

Dollar said he has enjoyed his 72 years of life and the places he’s been and the things he’s done and seen.

“I’ve enjoyed my run. It’s been an honor for me to have had the opportunity to have been Luke’s father. It’s the greatest honor a man could have. And I’ve had the occasion to touch a lot of people’s lives,” he said.

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