The youngest of three sons (joined later by one younger sister), Gerald Hawkes was born to Luvenia and Ernest Shelby Hawkes and raised in the African–American, middle class community of Turner's Station, Baltimore County. His father worked at Bethlehem Steel, and both parents were leaders in their church and community. Gerald's oldest brother became the first African–American executive at Exxon Corporation.
In high school, Gerald was handsome and an exceptional athlete and dancer, and just like Fred Astaire, he could dance up walls. He was always remembered for his turquoise–colored eyes and quick humor. Gerald missed out on recruitment to baseball's major leagues when he was suspended from school for clowning. Gerald graduated, one semester late, from Carver Vocational Technical School in Baltimore after receiving training as a printer. He fell in love with the precision needed to set type. He then taught printing at a high school and became a full–time compositor for a commercial printing company after a brief stint in the Army where he received training as a medical specialist.
After nineteen years of a very solid middle class life, Gerald became permanently disabled after a brutal mugging that occurred as he was returning home from a late shift at University of Maryland Hospital's Shock Trauma Unit. Unable to return to work, Gerald also lost most of his sense of taste and smell. In utter despair, he turned to drugs and became homeless. To combat the anger and hatred he felt, Gerald began to obsessively use matchsticks to build sculptures: "They are like people, matchsticks have the capacity to give light—or not." In them, Gerald found an ideal tool for expressing his life-long fascination with precision, number and geometry, as well as his deeply personal spiritual philosophy.