Over a century strong: The amazing life story of Mantua’s Jerry Butler

February 15, 2017

Mantua Apartments resident Jerry Butler, a World War II veteran, sat down to talk about his incredible life’s journey.

The phrase “you think you’ve seen it all” is tossed around pretty freely these days. Sometimes so often that it can lose its meaning.

But it in his 100-plus years on earth, Jerry Butler has literally almost seen and done it all.

Seventeen U.S. presidents. Nine popes. Two World Wars. The Great Depression.

The list could go on and on as he prepares to turn 101 this coming November.

On this bitterly cold Friday afternoon in February, Jerry, a World War II veteran who still lives independently and was fresh off one of his typical scooter rides from his home at Mantua Apartments to the VA Hospital in University City, parked his motorized scooter in a conference room at Mantua and began to tell his amazing life’s story.

“I was in North Africa, right along the firing lines,” said Jerry, who was born and raised in Burgess, South Carolina, of his time serving in the Army from 1942-43 when he drove food and ammunition trucks.

After his service in North Africa was complete, Jerry and fellow soldiers were on a boat to Italy, where they were slated to arrive and then head back stateside.

“The boat sank. They torpedoed the ship and sank it,” Jerry recalled. “I was afraid and I was never able to swim. Just before the ship went down, the captain told me ‘Abandon ship.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Get off.’ I said, ‘I’m not getting off because I can’t swim.’”

Faced with a dire decision, Jerry grabbed a life preserver and jumped into the water in hopes of surviving.

Jerry estimates he was in the water from 4 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning, staying afloat and surviving by clutching to the life preserver he brought off the ship with him.

Jerry says he was in the cold water for so long that he was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Finally, he was picked up and taken to a beach where other soldiers in the shipwreck, many of whom were dead, were taken to.

“They laid me down there on some soldiers who were dead already,” Jerry recalled. “I laid on top of them and did some moving. … Then they gave me a shot of whiskey and I really did some moving.”

Jerry eventually fully recovered and was sent back home to South Carolina. Upon initially returning home, Jerry thought he may have to be shipped out to Japan to fight again in World War II. But Jerry had earned enough points for his previous service in North Africa that he was able to be honorably discharged and stay home in South Carolina.

With his life now ahead of him, Jerry went to work for a contractor to build and remodel houses. With enough experience under their belts, Jerry and his brother eventually started their own remodeling business. But when Jerry’s brother passed away in 1962, Jerry took over the business and ran it until he moved to Philadelphia over a decade ago.

“The reason I’m in Philadelphia is because my son, Ike, was still living up here,” Jerry said. “I was staying in my house in South Carolina by myself. … So I came to Philadelphia over 10 years ago.”

When Jerry was living with Ike, he became friendly with another local man and the two would go and get coffee or breakfast or iced tea together. His friend’s family eventually brought Jerry over to Mantua Apartments in the summer of 2008 when the building was under construction. His friend’s daughter encouraged Jerry to fill out an application.

“I said to her, ‘Oh, I’ll never live there,’” Jerry recalled. “One Saturday morning, I stopped by their place to say hello to her mother. She asked me if I had my social security card. She said ‘Let me have it.’ She went downstairs, got the application, filled it out and said, ‘Mr. Butler, I filled you out an application.’”

But Jerry was still thoroughly against the idea. He planned to move back to his native South Carolina.

But then he received a phone call that changed his course of thinking for good.

“I got a phone call telling me I was approved to live [at Mantua],” Jerry said. “I couldn’t turn it down. So I’ve been here from then up until now.”

That phone call was over seven years ago.

And in those seven-plus years at Mantua, Jerry has continued to live independently, just like he always has. With the help of his motorized scooter, Jerry still takes his regular trips to the VA hospital, which he estimates take about a half hour or so each way. He also heads out to the bank, to church and to do his grocery shopping. He even still heads out to see some friends for cake and coffee every now and then.

“I go anywhere I want on the scooter,” said Jerry, who credits green smoothies and staying active for his health. “I just went to the VA hospital this morning. I left here around 7 in the morning and there a little before quarter of 8.”

Jerry can admittedly by persistent and stubborn at times. And while he also admits there’s no place like home in his native South Carolina, he’s happy to now call Philadelphia, and specifically Mantua, his home.


Mantua Apartments is a Presby’s Inspired Life-sponsored community that offers 65 units of HUD-PRAC Affordable Housing in West Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood.

For more on Mantua, click here.

For more on Presby’s Affordable Housing Communities, click here.