Remembering Gerry — by Mark Wiley

Former CLA Dean, Chair of Political Science and Professor Emeritus, Gerry Riposa passed on January 31st in McKinney, Texas after a long valiant battle with both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Gerry is survived by his wife, Carolyn Dersch; his three stepchildren, Stephen, Sara, and Andrew; three grandchildren, Sloane, Peyton and Sutton; and twin great-grandsons, Grayson and Jamie. Gerry is also survived by his two younger brothers, Larry and Ted. Gerry Riposa was 75.

Dr. Riposa received his Ph.D. from UC Riverside in 1984 and held an assistant professor position at Texas Tech from 1985-89. He came to Cal State Long Beach in 1989 along with fellow colleagues Larry Martinez and Larry George. He taught a variety of Political Science courses and published several articles on public policy as well as on street gangs, a subject to which he was introduced while working for a time in Mayor Tom Bradley’s LA office.

After retiring from Cal State Long Beach, Gerry and Carolyn moved to McKinney to be near family.  “Papa” Gerry helped his grandson, Sutton, gain more self-confidence by enrolling both of them in karate lessons. Gerry was also an avid biker and competed regularly in various kinds of races. One particularly grueling competition was held during the summer, often in triple digit heat, and was a 100-mile race through hilly Texas terrain.

I met Gerry when I became Associate Dean in CLA in 2005. Gerry was then the other Associate Dean, a position he had held since 2002. As an Associate Dean and later as Dean of the college, Gerry consistently supported me in my role, even during some extremely challenging times.  

He wasn’t given to lots of talk about himself, and it was only after he and I had worked together for a few years that we began hanging out outside of work. We also took up hiking, and it was while hiking that he gradually opened up about some of the personal details of his life.

He grew up on the East Coast in Norfolk, Virginia in a working-class Italian family. He was the oldest of three brothers whose father was a career Navy man who did dangerous underwater construction. Early in his life, higher education was not Gerry’s aspiration. Gerry was more the warrior. A wrestler on his high school team, upon graduating in 1966 he immediately joined the Marine Corps. He was on the All-Marine Corps Boxing Team and became the #2 boxer in his weight class.   

While in the Marines, Gerry was sent to Vietnam and ended up doing two tours of duty there. He was wounded twice and received two Purple Hearts. As his friend of 55 years and fellow Marine, Bob Parker, explained, due to the many times Gerry distinguished himself as a Marine, he was promoted to Staff Sergeant in 3 years, and as the announcement from Marine Corps headquarters made clear at that time, Gerry was one of only 126 others to achieve that rank in such a short period throughout the 192-year history of the Corps.

There were two battles in particular that exemplify Gerry’s leadership, courage, and loyalty. Although they did not serve in the same unit, Bob Parker, relates that once when Gerry’s unit was on patrol, they walked into a North Vietnamese Army Kill Zone. Every Marine who walked into that area with Gerry owes his life to the fact that Gerry heard what he called “the click of thunder.” That, Bob explains, was the AK-47 safety being clicked off. Gerry yelled, “Hit it,” and no one needed an interpreter. They hit the ground as the grass above their heads was sheared off as if someone had sent a giant scythe across the top of it.  No one was hit in the initial volley of that ambush, and eventually Gerry’s unit got out of there and lived to fight another day.

Once while we were hiking, Gerry told me about another harrowing incident. His 12-man unit was on night patrol in the jungle when suddenly they were attacked by about 50 Viet Cong regulars. Outnumbered 4 to 1, Gerry’s unit laid down in a semicircle to defend themselves. The fighting was fierce, and Gerry and his fellow Marines were overrun and had to engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat. Gerry’s unit lost 4 men, but he and the rest of the unit narrowly escaped. I asked Gerry how they could keep their composure in the face of seeming imminent death. “Well,” he said, some guys do panic, but that’s why you train so much ahead of time to be prepared as best you can.” He then added, “What focused me most, though, was just trying to protect the guys next to me. That’s all I thought about.” Gerry left the Marines in 1971, but Bob Parker said that until the day he died, Gerry “carried a bullet he got in Viet Nam in his abdomen.” Bob doesn’t know why he never had it removed. I suspect it might have been partially to remind Gerry of what happened in that terrible war.

Upon returning to the States, Gerry endured the negativity and harsh treatment so many Vietnam vets unfortunately experienced. He had trouble finding work and suffered from PTSD. He eventually got a job with a construction company, yet his post-Vietnam experience motivated him to pursue higher education. He believed getting higher ed credentials would allow him to pursue work that might help veterans. That was Gerry. Helping others drove him and that quality certainly helped mold him into an excellent teacher and university citizen. I heard Gerry proclaim many times his love for students and the college. Professor Martinez writes that “[Gerry’s] service to his students, the Department and College was exemplary. His move back to Texas left a gap in our social fabric that was never really closed. Very sad to lose a true friend.” 

In an anecdote, Professor Larry George expresses well Gerry’s concern for others and then sums up the essence of who Gerry was: “… I was serving on the College RTP Committee, which had, obtusely, recommended against awarding a permanent salary bump to a junior colleague with a young family. Gerry was the Dean…. I barged in[to his office], and explained the situation. Hearing the words ‘young family,’ Gerry thought for maybe two seconds and said simply ‘I’ll take care of it,’ and he did. Gerry was like that – reflexively compassionate and empathetic and always thinking about how to make things better for others, particularly for those with little in the way of privileges and advantages. He was organically and instinctively progressive in that way, and his decisions were shaped and directed by an unadorned, unpretentious ethical commitment and personal political orientation that fit his persona as a politically dissenting working-class Marine veteran.”

I will miss my hiking buddy.

[Note: For anyone who wishes to honor Gerry’s life, the family suggests a donation be made in his memory to the Gary Sinise Veterans Foundation (www.garysinisefoundation.org ). Also special thanks to Bob Parker, Larry Martinez, and Larry George for their help with this tribute to Gerry Riposa.]