Rich Jerome: A Naples family legacy of kindness
When Jeni Makepeace launched Jeni’s Pies years ago, Rich Jerome and family were there for her.
“Since the beginning of my pie adventure, I have had the pleasure of working with our good neighbors Richie and Mary Jerome,” said Makepeace, whose award-winning pies became a part of Naples tradition. “The Jeromes gave me a leg up my first year when I didn’t have money upfront to buy grapes. They took care of me and considered me when their own crop was low and found fruit from other growers, always supplying me with top-quality fruit.”
Rich Jerome, a seventh-generation fruit farmer whose Jerome’s U-Pick continues after more than a century, died Aug. 17. He was 71.
Many in the Naples community and beyond are remembering the man with a “booming voice and generous smile,” as Makepeace said. “I will miss working with him.”
If you needed help, you could call Rich and he’d be there, or he’d know who to get, said Bill Kelly of Naples, a longtime friend.
A lifelong Naples resident and Naples grad who attended Cornell University, Mr. Jerome found his passion for farming and joined his father on the family farm. He married the love of his life, Mary, and they carried on the family legacy—drawing people from across the region to the hillside farm on Route 53 where you could pick sweet berries and pluck grapes from the vine.
In late summer, a field of sunflowers rose with a sign: “Take Home a Free Bouquet of Sunshine Compliments of Jerome’s U-Pick.”
Mr. Jerome was one of the most kind-hearted people, said Valerie Knoblauch, president of Finger Lakes Visitors Connection.
“He was always so welcoming to visitors,” Knoblauch said. “He would share his expertise—and most of all his personality and character. People just fell in love with him.”
“I knew Richie my whole life,” said Kathy Mannella of Naples. “I never saw him without a smile.”
He always had time to stop and listen, and to share his own stories, said Sandy Kelly, a retired teacher who recalled Naples Little Bunch nursery school outings to Jerome’s pumpkin patch.
She recounted one time when a little boy dropped his pumpkin and it smashed on the ground. The boy was devastated.
“Rich picked him up and said, “Well, that wasn’t a very good one, anyway. Let me get you another one,’” Sandy Kelly said.
Her family had ties to the Jeromes through Cornell, where Sandy’s sister attended at the same time as Mr. Jerome. Sandy’s father, a Cornell grape specialist, knew him and his father. Sandy said that when she and Bill moved to Naples, and had a vineyard in their backyard, Mr. Jerome was happy to come over as needed to lend a hand.
“He was such a kind person, happy, and had a hearty laugh,” she said. “It didn’t matter whether you were 8, 80, or 3 months old, he cared about you.”
Jerome was active in local government and organizations, serving on the Naples Town Board, Board of Education and Planning Board. He filled numerous roles over the years for the Ontario County Farm Bureau and the New York State Farm Bureau. He served on the Grape Extension Advisory Committee, Assessment Board of Review, and was a board member for the Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Julie Maslyn, who worked closely with Mr. Jerome on Farm Bureau advocacy and programs, said she’ll miss his energy and upbeat nature. They worked on a scholarship fund through the Jerome family and together they re-activated a scholarship through the Farm Bureau.
“The thing I loved about Rich was that everything he did, he did with such enthusiasm,” Maslyn said. “He was a ‘rah-rah’ cheerleader who helped move projects forward.”
Most of all, Mr. Jerome loved spending time with his family, following the activities of his grandkids and spending summer weekends at the cottage. He loved the farm and the people who came to share his passion for it.
“He was a Naples boy through and through,” said Bill Kelly, who recalled the last conversation they had, much like others, on Kelly’s porch. “We had coffee and talked about Syracuse basketball, the sewer system, school — mostly about grandchildren.”
The Jerome family plans to harvest the grapes this fall. The future of the farm is yet to be determined, though the family hopes that the property will continue as a farm.
A celebration of life is planned on Sept. 12, 2020, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., at Jerome’s U-Pick Fruit Farm, 8936 Route 53, Naples.
Given the pandemic, the family requests that social distancing be maintained and that visitors wear masks. There will not be any formal program, allowing friends and family to stop by anytime.