WALLA WALLA - I was out of town, visiting family in Denver, when I got the news.
It was a somewhat cryptic telephone message from one of the kids: "Pepe's Pizza died."
And the first thing that crossed my mind was that it must be a somber day out on the fairways - and in the roughs, too, I suppose - at Veterans Memorial Golf Course. Because the Magpie is silent at last.
Pepe's Pizza was, of course, Jerry Manuel, the man largely credited with bringing the first pizza parlor to the Walla Walla Valley and someone I've proudly considered a friend for 40-odd years.
Before he was Pepe's Pizza, though, Jerry was known as Pizza Pete, which was the original name of his restaurant at 1533 Isaacs Ave. in Walla Walla's Eastgate. And before that he was Geraldo Leo Magnoni, the name given to him by his parents, Remo and Edna May Magnoni, who were first-generation Italian Americans. Remo's parents came to this valley from Italy in the late 1800s.
Like many Italian families, the Magnoni surname evolved into Manuel - easier to spell and easier to pronounce - to better fit into the family's new American culture.
But to me, and many others who spent so many enjoyable hours in Jerry's company on the golf course and in the bowling alley, he was fondly known as the Magpie. And anyone who heard his gravelly voice or his infectious cackle would understand why.
As one of Memorial's regulars once put it, "I didn't often play with Jerry, but I always knew where he was."
"We all called him the Magpie," recollected Geoff Waetje, who worked for Jerry throughout the 1970s and was a regular playing partner during those years and well into the '80s. "You could hear him across the golf course, complaining if somebody sank a shot on him or rubbing it in if he made the shot. But he had a great love for the game."
I got to know Jerry in the early 1970s. My first recollection was that we were paired together in the same handicap division of the Walla Walla All-City Championships golf tournament.
I'm not sure who got the best of who during that friendly showdown, but it was the first of many competitive battles between us as Jerry welcomed me into his regular group of playing partners at Memorial.
In addition to Waetje, others included Jerry's brother-in-law Ed Chadek, Wayne DeMoss, Dave Cook and, later on, Clayton Loudermilk. Jim Healy also joined the group when he happened to be in town, and there were others as well.
We always had a 1 p.m. tee time, and a daily ritual for the group was to stand around on the first tee and wait for Jerry, who wouldn't leave his restaurant until he was certain the lunch crowd was properly taken care of. He'd show up on the fly, flour in his hair and tomato paste on his shirt, take two or three practice swings and then line up his first shot.
And you'd know the direction of that shot by the Magpie's first epithet.
There were always, of course, small wagers placed, both team and individual, as well as skins competition. And Jerry was a fierce competitor.
He hit what we all called a "banana ball" that started in the direction of the left rough and then gradually sliced back into the fairway. That was the plan, anyway, but sometimes he'd catch trees on the left, and sometimes he'd overplay his slice and wind up in the right rough.
But no matter how much trouble he seemed to find, I learned early never to underestimate him. With those powerful Italian forearms, he often made shots from the Memorial hardpan that I couldn't make playing winter rules in the middle of the fairway.
And if his shot didn't unnerve you, his robust laugh would.
On Wednesday nights, we took our friendly rivalry to Bowlaway Lanes as long-standing members of the Knights of Columbus League.
Jerry sponsored his own team and I was a member of the Union-Bulletin team. And when the U-B dropped its sponsorship, Jerry invited me to join his squad.
But bowling with him or against him, it didn't matter, because we always had a standing bet.
And Jerry bowled a lot like he played golf, throwing a "backup" ball that worked left to right. But he threw it with so much force that there were nights when he couldn't be beat. He could string a lot of strikes, but there were also those nights when he couldn't avoid splits.
And either way, bowlers in the Farmer's Co-Op League at the other end of the alley always knew Jerry was in the house.
When the 1990s rolled around, I became so engaged in coaching Little League baseball that I very seldom made it to the golf course. But once a year Jerry coaxed me out for a partners game against Red Golden and Doc Palmer, with dinner for four as the stakes.
By then, my golf game had deteriorated to the point where Jerry and I didn't stand a chance, especially against a couple of sandbaggers like Red and Doc. But Jerry, ever the thoughtful one, arranged that we would pay off at his place, which left me wondering who the real loser was in this annual observance.
But there was a lot more to Jerry Manuel than fun and games and friendly wagers.
He was a dedicated husband, father and grandfather, an active member of Assumption Catholic Church, a vibrant supporter of Walla Walla Catholic Schools and a volunteer of countless hours of community service ranging from Boy Scouts to Fort Walla Walla Museum.
"Jerry was one of those guys from my dad's generation that has been such an inspiration to my generation," said Rod Fazzari, who was the alumni director at Walla Walla Catholic Schools in the mid-1990s when Jerry turned over his Walla Walla Fair food stand to the school to be used as an annual fund-raiser.
"He's done so many things behind the scenes that people don't realize," Fazzari added. "If you needed him to do anything for the school or the church, he would do it. He's been very inspiring to me and my brothers in showing us what true service is."
Jerry also served his country in World War II, during which he earned a Bronze Star of Valor, and again in the Korean War. It was between these military stints that he met Lanore Hatley at St. Mary Hospital - she was a nurse, Jerry a patient - and they were married in 1949.
Lanore died in the spring of 2008, and family members say Jerry was never the same after her death.
Looking back now, there's no way to figure which of us came out ahead in those many years of friendly wagering. I like to think we broke even.
And on Sept. 21 - like Kenny Rogers' 1978 hit country song "The Gambler" - Jerry broke even. He was 86.
But Jerry left behind a lot of winners. All of us who had the privilege of knowing him.