By STEVEN NALLEY
Jerry Dickerson could turn anything into a game.
His son, Will Dickerson, is now a senior at Mississippi State University majoring in mathematics. On car trips when he and his sister Beth were young, Will said, his father would tell them the car’s speed in miles per hour and the distance to their destination, challenging them to see who could work out the time of arrival first.
“My sister and I would be in the back with pens and pencils, trying to guess,” Will said.
Will said not all of Jerry’s favorite games were educational. He loved taking Will to football and basketball games, he said, and he especially loved sports at his alma mater, MSU. Only later would Will learn how many people respected Jerry as a teacher and loved him as a friend, he said.
Jerry Dickerson was one of 125 personnel killed in the Pentagon during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
After a prestigious career in the U.S. Army that earned him the title of lieutenant colonel, Jerry was working at the Pentagon as an assistant professor for the Army’s Operations Research Systems Analysis for Millitary Applications courses. Jerry developed a course on parametric cost estimating which became a national standard, and students praised him for his professionalism, leadership and interest in students’ success.
A memorial and American flag stands in Jerry’s honor in the Hunter Henry Center courtyard. Jerry was also a close friend to current MSU president Mark Keenum, and he shared the Pentagon with the deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force who would become Keenum’s predecessor: Robert H. “Doc” Foglesong.
Two towers, three screens
As deputy chief of staff, Foglesong said his job was to oversee, monitor, recommend policies and manage funding for the U.S. Air Force’s global operations. On Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 a.m., he led a briefing for senior Air Force leadership. The material, he said, was familiar.
“We were still being shot at in Iraq while we patrolled the skies back in those days,” Foglesong said. “It was, obviously, before the war but after Desert Storm. We usually talked about any weather coming in that we had to plan for bases evacuating or humanitarian relief efforts that were going on somewhere or the status of our satellites.”
About two-thirds of the way through the presentation, Foglesong said, a staffer came in and interrupted the presentation, replacing all the data he and his staff were presenting with live footage from CNN.
“What came up next was all three screens had one shot of the first building burning in New York,” Foglesong said. “An airplane had just flown into that building, and like everyone else in America, we were all stunned silent about it. Watching was all we were doing.”
American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower at 8:46 a.m. About 16 minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower, and Foglesong and the others in the conference room watched it happen. Not long after this, he said he convened a crisis action team to work on a plan of action.
During this planning, Foglesong said he received a note saying an airplane was headed to Washington, D.C., and no one on it was talking to anyone on the ground. Discussion began about the likeliest targets. Foglesong said he was among many who guessed wrong.
“I would have thought the first target would have been the White House; the second target, the Capitol; and then I thought the Pentagon after that,” Foglesong said. “But in retrospect, we now know the plane came out and headed directly to the Pentagon.”
Waiting eight hours, then 13 days
Will did not learn about the 9/11 attacks until he came home from school at 2:30 p.m.
“Everyone’s surprised to hear that,” Will said.
Will was 11 at the time of the attacks and a sixth-grade student at a public school in Washington, D.C. He said he was one of three students in his class with fathers working at the Pentagon. The teachers did not let students know about the attacks, he said, because they did not want students to panic.
“I don’t know who’s to say if it was the right decision or not,” Will said.
His mother, Page Dickerson, sent a neighbor to pick him up from school, he said, while she stayed by the phone. Will said Page had received a call from Jerry after the attacks on the Twin Towers but before the Pentagon was hit.
When he arrived at home, Will said, several neighbors were with Page, waiting for word from husbands working at the Pentagon.
“They all got calls from their husbands throughout the afternoon,” Will said. “My mom got a call from (Jerry’s) commanding officer at about 10:30 p.m.”
The news that night, Will said, was that Jerry was “officially unaccounted for.” Official word of Jerry’s death, he said, did not come until Sept. 24.
Foglesong was in a different area of the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. He didn’t feel the shock, he said, but he smelled the smoke.
“The walls of the Pentagon are incredibly thick,” Foglesong said. “When they built that building in World War II, man, they built that thing to withstand I-don’t-know-what. We knew it had been hit because, almost immediately, we were getting smoke and fumes through the ventilation system, because the building was burning.”
Foglesong and his crisis action team began executing a plan for evacuation, but before he left, he called his wife on a hotline to his home on Bolling Air Force Base in southeast Washington, D.C. and instructed others to call their families as well.
“I rushed back into my office, picked up the phone and she answered it,” Foglesong said. “I said, ‘I’m OK, I’ll be home when I get home,’ and that was kind of the end of that conversation. She said, ‘Well, thank God, because we were all wondering what happened.’”
It would be hours before Foglesong would get home and find out which other people his wife was talking about. There, he said, she handed him a note with 32 names on it.
“She said, ‘If you want to know who loves you, these are the people who called to find out whether you were okay or not,’” Foglesong said. “Some of them are people you’d expect — both sons called; my mother called; A lot of people I’d served with, who knew I was in the Pentagon, called. A lot of those people, I hadn’t talked to in a long time. I put them all on my speed dial after that. I still call them; I still talk to them.”
Will discovered so many people loved his father, he needed two funerals.
Jerry Dickerson was buried at his first funeral at Jonesboro Memorial Park Cemetery in Jonesboro, Ark. Page had grown up in Jonesboro, he said, and the Dickersons had no family ties to their home in Springfield, Va.
Will said the church in Jonesboro was filled beyond capacity for Jerry’s funeral service.
“Mark and (Jerry) were childhood friends in Yazoo City,” Rhonda Keenum said. “They reunited at MSU while juniors.”
It was Rhonda and Mark who first brought Page and Jerry together, she said, setting them up on a blind date. Will said he remembers Rhonda telling Beth she brought the parents together, to Beth’s surprise.
Will said hundreds came from Washington D.C. for the Jonesboro funeral, along with many soldiers from other bases where Jerry had been stationed. When the Dickersons returned to Springfield, he said, they discovered more military and church friends who believed one funeral was not enough.
“All his friends and colleagues at the Pentagon, they approached us wanting to do it,” Will said. “They did most of the planning with our input.”
So, several weeks after the first, a second funeral service with no burial was held in Jerry’s honor, Will said. To this day, he said, people still talk to him about the father he lost.
“It’s amazing how many people said, ‘Jerry Dickerson was my best friend,’” Will said. “I think that was true of everyone he met.”