A century of life to share 'I'm happy here': Robert Jackson, 101, relies on his experiences, as distant as plowing Alabama fields with a mule more than 90 years ago, to teach troubled youths "about work, about manners, about learning, about Jesus."

January 25, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Robert Jackson, a gentleman born in 1894, begins many anecdotes by saying, "It's a long story." In syncopation, he moves his long, beautiful hands to shape the memory. Within moments, the turn of the 20th century comes into view.

It was 1903.

"I was 9 years old. I was raised in the Lord, and I came out of the woods in Georgia to live in Vincent, Ala. I worked in the fields with a mule and a plow. Sunup to sundown. I worked for Mr. Logan. He was a white man and treated me like I was his son. He had four sons of his own. We all plowed.

"Corn. Wheat. Cotton. Cabbage. Black-eyed peas. White potatoes. You name it. At the end of the month, he went to my grandmother, Amy, and gave her the $8 he paid me. She gave me clothes. Did I want the money? No, sir. I had a whole lot of money sometimes 50 cents in my pocket."

Halfway through the story, Mr. Jackson, 101, rested his fingers and vocal cords a moment. It was another day volunteering his services at the Waxter Children's Center, a Laurel detention center for youngsters awaiting court dates.

He was telling of experiences he shares with the troubled youths, who call him "Grandpa." His Waxter service has been lauded by the governor and others. His wasn't so much a long story as one from long ago, telling of virtues ancient to some people today.

Good manners. Faith in God. Education. Respect for yourself, then for others. A simple life with a little change in your pockets. Honoring your mother and father. Help for others. Good manners. Mr. Jackson's manners.

"Yes, sir, thank you for asking. My mother, Mary, was always sick. My daddy died when I was 6 weeks old. My two brothers and two sisters died when we were small. There was only me to work. I plowed. It was better to work for my mother than reading. I helped. That's why I never went to school and I never learn to read or write.

"Regret? No, no, no, sir. My mother and my grandmother, they read and wrote. A lady asked me if it wasn't too late to learn. But God brought me this far with his grace. I give in return. I want to reach out to help."

Today, as on most Mondays through Thursdays, Mr. Jackson and fellow foster grandparents from Baltimore socialize with the children as part of a statewide Juvenile Justice Department program directed by Ola Jackson, The youngsters, some arrested more than once, are in their teens, sometimes younger.

Their gray-haired friends are called the "Waxter 10."

They are mostly way past retirement age, a sparkling bunch planning a senior prom for themselves this year. They get a tax-free, hourly stipend of $2.45 an hour from the federally financed program, but it's mainly their spirit that brings them to Laurel.

Alice V. James, the Waxter superintendent, said of the Waxter 10, "They are a feisty group of older people. They're always laughing when they come through our front door. When they're not here, it's a void. Mr. Jackson, he's a very loving person. He has one million stories."

Becoming a foster grandparent was natural for Robert Jackson, who likes simplicity, whether helping or otherwise. "I have no middle name," he said. "No need."

"One day the Lord comes to me in a dream and says, 'I want you to go to Laurel, Maryland.' I met Ola Jackson. In 1981, I started working as a grandparent. I've been happy all my life, and I'm happy here with these boys and girls. A few of them won't listen, but the majority you can help, tell them about work. About manners. About learning. About Jesus."

Mr. Jackson was natty in blue turtleneck, suit and top coat. He walked slightly bent from one room to another but was steady. His cane was a working cane one moment, an ornament the next. He has a trim mustache with a hint of stubble -- "I ran out of blades; tomorrow is a new day."

In his apartment at the Chase House on Cathedral Street, he had cooked "whatever I liked eggs, bacon, sausage." He smiled, beamed and laughed, growing pensive only when he mentioned that he likes to visit his ailing wife, Irene, about 80, once a week in a nursing home.

At Waxter, Mr. Jackson joined Thomas Adams, Emma Thornton, Sarah Moals, Claire Culver, Gladys J. Simms and Sally Thompson, helping the 40 or so youths in residence. The other members of the Waxter 10, Lillie Cotton, Marie Cornish and Hester Slater, had other commitments.

The former Alabama plowboy could not help with written words. His forte was the spoken word and a century of life.

Earlier, Mr. Jackson had shared his thoughts with a visitor.

"Thank you for asking, brother. My wife and I, we love each other very much," he said. "She doesn't talk very much." Mr. Jackson said he enjoys making up the difference.

His wife of 22 years has children from a previous marriage. His first wife, Susie, died. Their son died. How many grandchildren? Mr. Jackson smiled: "I have a host of grandchildren and a host of greats."

Mr. Jackson forgot a little and remembered a lot.

"I remember some of my jobs," he said, pointing one index finger high. "I worked for the Lord in many ways."

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