‘Like no other’: Jimmy Gerken’s lasting impact on EGR

Kent County

EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Among the blue and gold of Pioneer pride in East Grand Rapids are symbolic reminders of a life that changed the community.

“Our school district will continue to pass the legacy on of Jimmy Gerken. Not just today, but for years and years to come,” said Tim Johnston, director of athletics at East Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Jimmy Gerken is known better to some by his nickname, Kabookie. The ultimate East fan died nearly two decades ago but his spirit is very much alive in the school halls and streets of East Grand Rapids.

quote sign on wall next to fitness center doors
A Sept. 5, 2019 photo of tribute to Jimmy Gerken outside the East Grand Rapids fitness center named after him.

“The impact he had on our students — not just our students but our teachers, our coaches, our community— is something like no other,” said Johnston.

Jimmy Gerken was like no other. He never lived on his own and his parents actually moved closer to the high school because that’s where he wanted to be all the time.

“It’s funny — whenever I’m introduced to anyone, I’m always introduced as Jimmy’s brother, Kabookie’s brother. So that’s also kinda special,” said Don Gerken.

From the late 1960s to shortly before his death in 2002, if it was happening in East Grand Rapids, Jimmy Gerken was there.

Jimmy Gerken picture on blue wall
A photo of Jimmy “Kabookie” Gerken hangs on the wall of the weight room at East Grand Rapids High School. (Sept. 3, 2019)

His legacy is still on display — from the life-size statue on Jimmy Gerken Plaza, to the weight room named after him and a wall in the hallway of the high school reminding students to befriend, support, be happy and appreciate.

Jimmy Gerken waving statue
A life-size statue of Jimmy Gerken greets visitors to East Grand Rapids’ football field. (Sept. 3, 2019)

“I’m always sorry that the kids that are here today can’t actually experience because there’s nothing like the direct exposure you would get from him,” said Don Gerken.

“He had a saying that ‘I’d like to be your friend,’ and he was. He was a friend to everybody,” said Johnson.

Jimmy Gerken’s legacy is also a lesson at EGR. Every February, the high school celebrates “Kabookie Week,” teaching the values, love and friendship he represented.

***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Gerken passed way in 2003 based on information from the school district. We regret this error, which has since been corrected.***

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