Jerry Newport: Michigan Delta Chi’s Most Unique Brother

By Joe Gradisher ‘79

December 2023

Every Michigan Delta Chi Brother who walks in the door of 1705 Hill Street is unique. Every one of us comes from our own unique background. We have our own interests, our own dreams, our own view of life, and our own way of thinking. Yet, we are all Brothers. This is the strength of our Fraternity and our Bond.

Steve Civiletto, Doug Shelton, and Jerry Newport at the 2010 DX Reunion football game

One year ago, in January of 2023, we lost one of our Michigan Delta Chi Brothers, Gerald “Jerry” David Newport, former President of the Chapter (Spring 1968) and a 1970 graduate, who was arguably the most unique of all of us.

Jerry was born on August 19, 1948, and raised in Islip, New York by parents who were teachers. According to his Wikipedia profile, “By age 7, he began showing signs of advanced mathematical ability, which continued to develop during school.”

Jerry was a savant, with the ability to perform difficult mathematical calculations in his head. A savant is a person who has an exceptional aptitude in a particular field, such as music or mathematics, despite having significant impairment in other areas of intellectual or social functioning.

Much later in life, Jerry learned that he had Asperger’s Syndrome, a distinctive form of autism.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a developmental disorder. Young people with Asperger’s Syndrome have a difficult time relating to others socially and their behavior and thinking patterns can be rigid and repetitive.

Asperger’s Syndrome is also a condition on the autism spectrum, with generally higher functioning. People with this condition may be socially awkward and have an all-absorbing interest in specific topics. Communication training and behavioral therapy can help people with the syndrome learn to socialize more successfully.

Approximately one in 10 persons with autism has some savant skills. In the case of intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, as well as brain injuries, savant skills occur at a rate of less than 1%. Thus, not all savants are autistic, and not all people with autism are savants.

Savant syndrome is a rare, but extraordinary, condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities, including autism, have some ‘island of genius’ which stands in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap.

In a 1996 interview for the Program “60 Minutes” by correspondent Lesley Stall, Jerry stated that he always knew there was something wrong with him, but as he was growing up, he didn’t know what it was.

As he told Stahl, “The one thing I’ve never had is natural grace. I guess that’s the part of me that I’ve always felt was missing, that everybody around me seemed to have, was this natural sense of when to talk and how,” says Jerry. “What to say and how to say it and do all those other unspoken things.”

Jerry and Delta Chi

Joining a fraternity in the fall of 1966 was a big step for Jerry. In high school, he didn’t have much of a social life, so the opportunity to date and party was a big step for him! College was a very happy period in his life, and he reflected fondly on “keggers that kept him from completing a mid-term exam” and “football games that swept him away by opposing teams.” 

His Delta Chi pledge class was the biggest one to date at that point with eight pledges. Throughout his life, he enjoyed staying in touch with brothers… especially Alec Pridgeon ‘72, Ken Brier ‘72, Frank Morrey ’64 and Mike Novak ’69 (Mike was his Big Brother).

Alec remembers, “Jerry was always agreeable day to day with a great sense of humor and had no enemies in the house. For that reason, he was well-liked and effective as President.”

Alec added, “I was Jerry’s roommate in the room called Grand Central for a semester. As he was studying a math book, I recall him telling me that he could not remember what he had just read on the previous page. It obviously worried him that he could not explain it. It all became clear to him later on when he was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s.”

Frank added these memories:

“Jerry was in the graduating class of 1970 and initially pledged in 1966. He was immediately accepted as a brother and lived in the house, fitting in nicely with the other brothers. The fraternity was very open-minded and accepted individuals with other backgrounds at the time. As we learned later, this unconditional acceptance as (just) another fraternity member meant a lot to him.

What attracted me at first to Jerry was that he had the physique of an endurance athlete, and he ran cross-country track in high school. Being a runner myself I urged him to try out for the Michigan team. I later challenged him to start training so we could run a marathon together, but it never happened.

I visited the house frequently during this time period to advise and counsel the brothers with an occasional card game and drink. It soon became apparent that Jerry had some fascinating and very extraordinary talents. We’d go for a beer at one of the local establishments—Schwaben’s, The Liberty, or The Del Rio. Invariably someone would ask him to multiply a three-digit number by another three-digit number. After one or two heartbeats, he would give an answer. At first no one would believe him, but it soon became apparent that he was never wrong. We did not have calculators then, so it would take me forever to check it by the old method!

Not surprisingly, after too much of this Jerry did not want the attention. He voiced concern that he did not want to be a ‘Freak Show’ — he just wanted to fit in and be liked.

He wanted to be ‘normal’ so much that he realized that humor and telling jokes was a good way to make friends and be well-liked. His jokes were often inappropriate, sexist, and sometimes downright crude. To be well-liked he attended a costume party with a cardboard whale around him as his costume. This whale theme became part of his persona and resulted in the name of his book, ‘Mozart and the Whale’ which was later made into a movie.

Jerry was very dedicated to Delta Chi at Michigan; the house and the actives always supported him.”

Frank also fondly recalls an incident from after their time together at Delta Chi.

Frank said, “On one occasion I happened to mention that I started my job with Western Pacific on Monday, March 5, 1995. He told me I was wrong! March 5, 1995 was on a Sunday that year. He was right of course.”

Jerry and his wife, Mary, in their apartment in April, 2016

Frank also noted that Jerry and his life-long partner Mary did not like California license plates because they have letters and that takes the fun out of it. With a seven-digit number they could play games “factoring” the number.

“I asked him where he got this ability. He said there are people out there who think they know numbers, but they don’t really ‘understand’ numbers.”

Alec recalled, “Following the 2010 reunion, a few of us, including Frank Morrey and Steve Civiletto ‘72, were having lunch in the airport. Jerry asked one of us to pull out a dollar bill and another to open the calculator on a cell phone. Now every bill has an eight-digit serial number. He asked the one holding the phone to get ready to punch in the numbers. After that, he asked the guy holding the bill to read off the number in two groups of four so he could multiply them in his head. He came up with the answer almost as quickly as the calculator. He exhibited similar prowess in a bilingual interview on Kontakto Live TV in Curacao.”

Alumni John Levinson ‘73 recalls that when Jerry was the Fraternity President in 1968, he made a decision that had a huge impact on Delta Chi at Michigan for many years to come.

After representing the House at an Interfraternity Council Meeting, Jerry came home with a name for a possible hire for the open position of Cook. That name was John Henry Russell. Though he never met “JR” in advance of the hire, he made the immediate decision to hire him to prevent any other fraternity from hiring him. JR had been employed as the cook at a fraternity at Michigan State.

JR was the Delta Chi cook from 1968 on through the mid-80s (with a couple year break late in his tenure) and was a tremendous influence on those of us who had the pleasure of knowing him. And he was a fantastic cook!

Levinson also noted that JR was a major factor in his decision to pledge Delta Chi in the Fall of 1969!

Looking back on his days at Delta Chi in a later profile for the eDelt, Jerry stated, “I appreciate Delta Chi now as a lifetime experience — showing loyalty and love from college that is still there. You might not even see it as an undergrad.  When I think about my Delta Chi experience, it makes me even gladder today than I felt back then.”

After Graduation – A Life-Changing Discovery

Jerry had earned a B.A. in Mathematics at Michigan, but after graduation, his life took a different turn.

“I didn’t have any sense of direction,” he says. “I was so socially disoriented… So, I spent most of the next 15 years driving a taxi.”

Again, talking to 60 Minutes and Lesley Stahl in 2004, Jerry said he spent the next 20 years drifting from job to job. He was a taxi driver, a messenger, a clerk, busboy and deliveryman. He failed at work, and he failed at relationships. He even had trouble, and still does, making eye contact.

“I was just Jerry,” he says. “I was just odd, eccentric… just almost normal.”

As Stahl noted, “He got so depressed that he tried to kill himself twice. Without friends, he developed a deep bond with animals. He let his pet cockatiels fly loose in his apartment. And then, just when he felt he would never find his way, (in 1988) he went to the movies. He saw ‘Rain Man,’ which starred Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt, an autistic man who spent his whole life in an institution.”

As 60 Minutes reported, “Babbitt had some unusual skills, which Jerry discovered he had, too. When a man in the movie (a doctor examining the character) asked Babbitt how much 4,343 times 1,234 was, Jerry knew the answer.”

“The answer was 5,359,262,” says Jerry. “I said it before he [Babbitt] said it. People in front of me in the theater just looked around. And then, I realized, ‘Uh-oh.'”

As Jerry watched Hoffman play Babbitt, he said, “That’s me.”

“I related to the character a lot,” Jerry said. “At the same time, I’d never been institutionalized. I figured that I must be somewhere between normal and a Raymond Babbitt kind of guy.”

So, Jerry set out to learn everything he could about autism and found his way to the department of psychiatry at UCLA. There, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which most experts say is a distinctive form of autism.

And as 60 Minutes further reported, Jerry’s life changed considerably.

“Once Jerry knew what he had, he went looking for others like him. He organized a support group of grownups with autism, and they met on a regular basis.”

When Jerry Met Mary
Jerry and Mary at their wedding

As 60 Minutes reported:

“Mary Meinel is a savant, considered a genius in some ways. Yet as a child, she was labeled difficult, even retarded. One teacher even thought she might be deaf. But Mary was hearing sounds that other humans couldn’t hear. She cried if the piano was out of tune. She played musical instruments with virtually no lessons. She writes music but goes about it like no one you’ve ever heard of.

She can write music from the last page and do it backwards. She says it’s because the music is already written in her brain. In fact, when she was with Stahl, she was writing four parts for a string quartet.

Mary was also an actress, appearing in several episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek Generations playing Bolian background characters. She also appeared on Babylon 5 as a Centauri female.

Like Jerry, Mary has Asperger’s Syndrome. After years of turmoil, including a nervous breakdown and thoughts of suicide, she found her way to Jerry’s support group.

“And then I found out that he had cockatiels, and he kept them loose in his house,” says Mary. “And I’m going, ‘Hey, me, too.'”

These two lost souls had found each other, and seven months after they met, Jerry asked Mary to marry him. They couldn’t believe their good fortune. They lived in an average house in an average neighborhood. And they’re just an average couple – almost, but not quite.

At one point, the Newport household included one rabbit, three iguanas, and 11 birds.

Life as a married couple did have its ups and downs, and while every new marriage takes adjustment, theirs took more than most.

“Jerry will walk in the door, and I’ll go, ‘Hi, honey. How are you?’ Hug. He goes, ‘No! [Don’t touch me],’ says Mary. “It’s like being electrocuted.”

“The kinds of touches that intimidate me are the ones that are a complete surprise,” says Jerry. “But it’s when you want to have sex, and that’s what both of us want to do, that’s a different story, a good story.”

They both say they have saved each other.

“She’s the kite and I’m the anchor. I didn’t know how to hope, and all she could do was hope,” says Jerry. “It’s incredible. I mean, it’s a miracle. I wake up and I feel like I’ve won the lottery, and I didn’t even buy a ticket.”

But their relationship has taken some twists and turns, as Stahl discovered when she visited Jerry and Mary Newport eight years later.

Their divorce in June 1999 came as a shock for everyone who knew them.

“For me, it was a very, very low point in my life,” says Jerry. “Because I really felt like I’d lost the greatest and perhaps the only opportunity I would ever have to have a relationship with somebody who was really a soul mate.”

Mary moved back to her hometown of Tucson. But a year later, after being lonely for her soul mate, she decided to take a big step.

“I made a phone call. I said, ‘Please, come back. I miss you,'” says Mary.

Jerry missed her, too. Eleven months later, on Valentine’s Day 2002, they remarried and held their reception at the local dog track, where a race was named in honor of the occasion.

For Jerry and Mary, life was good once again. Jerry and Mary lived in the Arizona desert, where they doted on their exotic menagerie of pets. Mary no longer wrote music, but she was happy at home, tending to her flock.

A New Career and A Movie

In the years after meeting and marrying, Jerry and Mary were catapulted into the limelight.

In addition to appearing on 60 Minutes (twice), they became authors, advocates, and public speakers.

At one point, they became known as “superstars in the world of autism,” shining examples of two people who refused to give up in the face of their mutual challenges.

In 2001, Jerry wrote and published, Your life is not a label: a guide to living fully with autism and Asperger’s syndrome for parents, professionals, and you!

And together Jerry and Mary wrote self-help books for people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, including Autism/Aspergers & Sexuality: Puberty and Beyond, which was released on July 1, 2002.

In 2005, their special love story became the basis for a movie.

Mozart and the Whale (released as Crazy in Love in some parts of Europe) is a romantic comedy-drama film directed by Petter Næss and starring Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell. The film is loosely based on the lives of Jerry and Mary Newport.

The movie captured the social discomfort that people like Jerry always feel. But at that stage in his real life, Jerry said he came to terms with who he was.

“In my opinion, ‘Mozart and the Whale’ is the best movie yet on autism or Asperger’s,” Jerry said. “It covers far more issues than other movies and treats the people as adults, trying to have lives. It is a good and very important movie for anyone who feels too different to find love.”

(Author’s note: Look closely in the movie: during one scene in the apartment of the character based on Jerry, the camera zooms in on the character’s college degree hanging on the wall… you’ll notice that it is a degree from the University of Michigan!)

In 2007, they wrote of their own version of the story, releasing Mozart and the Whale: An Asperger’s Love Story.

The Final Years

In June 2010 at the age of 62, Jerry competed in the Mental Calculation World Cup in Magdeburg, Germany. He won four of ten events, including a second and a third and the World Cup Trophy for “Most Versatile Calculator.”

Sadly, according to a posting by his brother, Jim, “Jerry suffered a stroke and entered an assisted care facility in Tucson several years before his passing. Shortly after his stroke, Mary passed away and Jerry continued to deteriorate. He passed peacefully on January 24, 2023 at age 74.”

Savant. Author. Advocate. Lecturer. Public Speaker. Husband. Stepfather. Son. Brother. Delta Chi Fraternity Brother.

Jerry Newport’s life was indeed truly unique.

Despite his sometimes-troubled life and eventual diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, Jerry did find some contentment in life… realizing his condition, finding love with Mary, enjoying college life at Michigan, and finding the joys of brotherhood at Delta Chi.

Perhaps this best sums up his view of his own life: “Rather than being obsessed with trying to be in step with the world, I’ve come to accept the fact that in certain ways I never will be. And I just don’t hate myself for it,” said Jerry. “I think that once I started learning how to love myself as I truly am, it made it easier for other people to love me the same way.”