Skip to main content

Chester County Press

The power of dedication

06/13/2017 01:49PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Natalie Smith
Staff Writer

When Jerry Dickerson decides to tackle a challenge, he’s all in. Whether it’s playing guitar, raising horses or shooting trick pool, if Dickerson takes on the task, he’s “an extremist, but not a perfectionist.”
“I’m the kind of person that, if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll have to prove you wrong,” Dickerson said.
Despite this consuming determination, some might believe that at 77, feats of strength are beyond this Kennett man. They would be wrong.
Dickerson is a World Natural Powerlifting Federation record-holder in the 75-to-79-year-old group in the sport of lifting weights from squat, bench and deadlift positions. Dickerson’s official 2016 world records were 300, 240 and 340 pounds.
During the November 2016 WNPF competition in Bordentown, N.J., which included lifters from the U.S., Brazil, the Republic of Georgia, Canada and Chile, Dickerson weighed in at 181 pounds. And, as a member of the WNPF, he shuns any kind of performance-enhancing drugs.
In 2015, when the organization named him “Lifter of the Year,” Dickerson’s impressive numbers were 295 for the squat lift, 230 for the bench press and 355 for the deadlift, for a total of 880 pounds.
What drew him to weightlifting?
“I’ve always been impressed by strength -- always,” said Dickerson, whose soft drawl even today echoes his Virginia boyhood. “I was also the smallest guy in school. I doubt if I weighed 100 pounds back then.”
After graduating from high school in Pocahontas, Va., he visited a sister in Wilmington, Del., and took a job at the Chrysler plant in Newark. He retired in 1988 after 30 years. “I did just about every job at Chrysler,” he said. “When I retired, I was a forklift driver. But I learned how to do everything.”
When Dickerson decided to pursue lifting in his early 20s, he started off in the Olympic style, in which the lifter raises the barbell above his or her head. His strength had been noticed by his coworkers at Chrysler.
“They would get a 50-pound box of screws and say, 'Let’s see if you can hold them straight out.' And I could,” Dickerson said.
The fact he had no formal training or gym didn’t dissuade him from engaging in what would become a lifetime passion. “When I first started lifting weights I lived in a house trailer,” Dickerson said. “I didn’t have any place to lift, because I never knew anybody who lifted weights.” He would set himself up under the trailer awning, regardless of the weather.
“I got me a bar and got me a few cinder blocks, then I’d stick the bar in the cinderblocks,” he said. “I was lifting outside in the bitter cold. My hands would almost freeze to the bar. It would be snowing, but I’d still be lifting my weights. That’s how much I wanted to be a weightlifter. It seems like it was almost born in me to be one.”
Realizing he needed better equipment, Dickerson traveled to York, Pa., and purchased two barbell sets from the York Barbell Company. Founded by the “Father of World Weightlifting,” Bob Hoffman, York was the place to go for aspiring weightlifters. Hoffman coached the U.S. Olympic Weightlifting Team from 1948 to 1964 and started the perennial champion York Barbell Club.
“I learned from Bob Hoffman. I bought his strength and health books and his magazines,” Dickerson said. “I learned how to do lifts from them, and then I would go and watch his lifters. I was doing a lot of things wrong when I started out.”
But he did get a chance to show his stuff to Hoffman himself, who complimented Dickerson on his technique. “He was at a contest once, and he was sitting in a warm-up room, and he saw me lift. He told me I had good style. I was a pretty good Olympic lifter. At the time I was only 148 pounds, and lifted 260 pounds over my head.”
Although Dickerson toyed with the idea of pursing an Olympic career, injuries and “life’s complications” got in the way. “It just seemed like one thing after another,” he said. But he wasn’t through with lifting just yet.
Powerlifting, with its emphasis on strength, appealed to Dickerson. But don’t call him a bodybuilder.
“I’m the type of person [who doesn’t body build] for muscles. I lift for strength and to be competitive against better lifters,” he said.
He powerlifted as founder and president of the First State Barbell Club, which won two Delaware championships in 1972 and 1973. Over the years, injuries might have slowed him down, but he’d always come back.
He recalled a contest in Philadelphia. “I needed my last lift to win the competition. And I told my trainer I was going to either make it, or hurt myself. In my mind, I’d already made it. That’s where the lifting starts -- in your mind -- but my body wasn’t ready for it. I lifted and gave a hard pull and heard my back pop, that’s when I knew.”
He had injured his L4 and L5 spinal discs. The pain, he said, “comes and goes, but I don’t let it stop me.”
And although Dickerson was in and out of lifting over the years, he certainly wasn’t idle. While living on a farm in Landenberg, he and wife, Lucille, raised racing Thoroughbreds. The two would enter them in races up and down the East Coast and West Virginia. “We’d raise them on farm from babies. We’d break them and take them to the racetrack,” Dickerson said.
“He never rode horses before that,” said Lucille Dickerson, an accomplished horsewoman. “He had to learn.” Another challenge accepted and mastered.
Learning to shoot pool and becoming proficient at trick shots was another personal test for Dickerson -- one that has led to many trophies and a Las Vegas competition.
However, about 10 years ago Dickerson was struck a real health blow.
“I developed polymyalgia rheumatica, an inflammation of the joints and muscles,” he said. “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t sit down, couldn’t get up. I was all hunched over. [Lucille] had to help me with everything.”
After wrestling with the condition for 18 months, he finally saw himself clear, but it took a toll.
Meanwhile, his wife had joined the Kennett Area YMCA around 2011 and loved it. For about a year, she kept encouraging Dickerson to join her. He was reluctant. Then he had a dream that he was weightlifting again.
“So, I was lying in bed. I had a dream and when I woke up, I raised my hands in the air, and I saw a whole lot of loose skin on my arm. It wasn’t like me to be like that,” he said. “I had deteriorated to almost nothing. I was laid up for three years.”
Lucille would not be deterred. “She kept trying to get me to go,” Dickerson said. “Finally, she said, 'Just come as a visitor. You don’t have to do [anything]. Just look around.'
“When we went to weight room and I saw all the weights and bars. I knew the love [for the sport] was there.”
Dickerson began slowly. “When I started off I could barely lift the bar, which was 45 pounds,” he said.
A good friend he made at the Y, Fred Orr, was also a lifter and encouraged him. “He saw my potential and started working with me. [He] talked me into going into competition,” Dickerson said.
Dickerson trains regularly at the Kennett Area Y, and gives high praise to its staff and fellow members. “I’ve met some great people there, good friends,” he said. “The Y has everything you need.” He also has profound respect for the branch’s executive director, Doug Nakashima. “He’s a wonderful guy. And he’s been a great friend,” Dickerson said.
And the Y organization, in turn, seems to appreciate Dickerson. In 2014, he received its Healthy Living Award. At the Kennett Area branch, he acts as an ambassador to members who might need a helping hand or advice on using the weight equipment.
Dickerson was also asked to address a meeting of executives of the eight branches of the YMCA of the Greater Brandywine Valley. They wanted him to speak about his life and YMCA experience. Dickerson was happy to do so, but it was something new for him. “I’m not used to getting up in front of a lot of people, especially important people,” he said. One more challenge accepted and surmounted.
Dickerson attributes his many successes to his Christian faith, the power of positive thinking and his wife of nearly 40 years, Lucille. “I met her shooting pool and she’s been my partner ever since,” he said. “I guess you could say it was love at first sight.”
Although Dickerson said his “mind is young,” he’s realizing that time is placing some constraints on him.
“I’m finding out that age does limit you. When I was young I could deadlift about 500 pounds,” he said. “Now I’m lucky to do 350. Your body is telling you to slow down.”
Maybe slow down, but certainly not stop. On July 30, Dickerson and YMCA friend Orr will be competing in the WNPF nationals in Essington, Pa. Because his back has been giving him some pain, Dickerson will be limiting himself to the bench press competition.
“But it should be better by 2018,” he said, already looking forward to powerlifting challenges … when he’s 78.
To contact Natalie Smith, email [email protected].