This is one of my saddest days since Roadshow made its debut nearly 23 years ago.
Jerry Morissette is dying.
The man who became the savior of the Father Serra rest stop on Interstate 280 near the Crystal Springs Reservoir has lung cancer and says he has been given six months, maybe a year, to live. He broke the news to me a few days ago after going to the VA for a checkup, complaining of shortness of breath.
"I went in feeling OK otherwise," said Morissette, 71. "Then they tell me I am going to be dead before long. Talk about a kick in the butt."
I first wrote about Jerry in 1993, after Greg Bayol of Caltrans called me and said I should visit the rest stop and check out what he was doing. Morissette had gotten a job as a supervisor with Social Vocational Services in San Mateo County. Among his duties was to organize the cleanup of the rest stop known for the statue of Father Junipero Serra pointing his finger at the freeway.
The rest stop was disgusting -- covered in graffiti and littered with bottles and used needles and condoms.
Then Morissette took over. The eccentric former monk, Disneyland worker and Navy medic, who was living out of an old ambulance he owned, parked it in the rest stop and made it his new home. Later he moved into a shed where maintenance equipment was stored. Eventually Caltrans erected a trailer on the site for him to live in.
He oversaw a trio of workers with disabilities who made the restrooms sparkle and planted 150 types of flowers and 350 fruit trees on the grounds with some landscaping help from Caltrans. Women loved the beautiful nasturtiums he placed in a vase at each sink in their restroom.
He even brewed coffee for weary travelers, and his work eventually drew national media attention, with CNN and others taking note of the good Samaritan who had adopted a rest area.
He smoked heavily while serving as a medic in Vietnam. "If you didn't smoke, you were a wimp," he said, speculating that the habit led to his cancer.
Morissette had his troubles, including a taste for drink and a temper, and Caltrans booted him out in 1995. Only when state Sen. Quentin Kopp intervened was he allowed to stay on for a couple more years.
"Unfortunately things turned negative with Jerry," said Bayol, then a state public information officer and now retired. "Jerry and his crew kept the rest stop well-decorated with plants he picked up at local stores when they were about to be tossed. I don't believe he had any money.
"All in all, Jerry provided a much-needed service. He was able to discourage illegal activities since he lived on-site. People were being accosted by men wanting sexual favors."
One of my favorite stories was Jerry's idea on how to get rid of the bad element attracted to the spot. Since the cops were here so often, why not mark off parking spaces with paint saying "Reserved for CHP" or "Reserved for Sheriff"?
Why would the bad guys come around when it was obvious the good guys would be pulling up?
That trick worked. One Christmas, thankful CHP officers brought a Christmas tree they adorned in the back storage area.
Morissette gave personal tours of "Jerry's Garden." One guy returned to plant a flower in a tribute to his mother after she died. A Caltrans worker planted a flower for his deceased father. A young couple planted a tree in celebration of the birth of their child.
The state refurbished the rest stop several years ago, and it remains a pleasant oasis. Now retired, Morissette lives in a trailer off El Camino Real in South San Francisco. He needs an electric wheelchair to get around.
He also needs our prayers.