Socrates of the South:
A Tribute to Professor Jeffrey Jackson
Article byPosted Featured AuthorJuly 2016
Query … That word followed by your name coupled with a question that you never thought of, much less could imagine answering. It evoked waves of emotion coursing through your body. You knew no matter how you answered, if you even could answer, that you were being engaged and challenged by the Socrates of the South. His iron fist and velvet glove approach, coupled with his sharp wit and sly commentary, made his classroom a legal learning laboratory that every student craved. You prayed fervently that your hours of preparation for class would grant you wisdom beyond your years so that you could go toe to toe, footnote by footnote, case by case with the legal legend. You knew to get to class on time because when the appointed hour came, the door closed and it was game time. Woe unto the unsuspecting soul who thought it was ok to show up late for class, as you then got to be the star of amateur hour. Never would you let your guard down or would you seek to draw attention to yourself. Those who thought the back row would be safe from his chicanery were very disappointed. There was nowhere to hide.
His expectations of your capabilities and talents were of epic proportion. You strived to reach for the stars because he expected and demanded it of you. His classroom cajoling made you step up to the plate and go for it. As time would progress during the semester, his classes that had originally made your stomach turn at night became the source of great pride as you came to master the subject material. However, he could always curb the thought that you had learned it all by giving you the dreaded Type ‘K’ examination question on the final, which felt much like a colorectal examination of your brain. Despite the trepidation and fear he could instill, he was the hands down winner every year of the Professor of the Year award such that the United States Mint called and asked him to quit hoarding all the silver bowls!
The “Pitt” bull of the classroom was much more tame outside the classroom — more akin to his beloved miniature Dachsund, Daphne. You could drop by his office at any time and he would gladly sit with you and give his time freely to help you understand any legal concept or discuss life or career strategies. He would write recommendation letters that would make potential employers think you could walk on water, upside down. No one could be more generous as he with everyone who crossed his path. Truly he would befriend and care for all with whom he came in contact no matter their station in life. During our Law School Bar Association fish fries and BBQs, he was the first in line to sit in the dunking booth to raise money for some charitable endeavor. There was no lack of students or faculty, for that matter, who wanted to put him in the tank! If you think his classes were exciting, just ask the MC Law School faculty about their meetings.
His home was your home. For those international students who could not travel for the holidays, he and his family became their surrogate family complete with all feasts attendant thereto. The most cherished role of all was to be one of his research assistants as you got to be on the “meal plan.” He would work you like a mule, but he would take you to dine with the legal leaders in the community and buy your lunch as you relished in the stimulating conversation. He knew them all, and they were equally as thrilled as the students to be able to dine with the Zen Master of the Law. You had better be prepared for those lunches as well as you were for his class. You would be, of course, because you did not want to disappoint him. For you knew if you did, the event would be forever chronicled in his endless memory bank to pull up at a moment’s notice. Fear of failure and a genuine desire to gain his respect was always a healthy motivator when hanging out with him.
The ethos of this giant was formed in coal mining country in Carmichaels, Pennsylvania. He was the son of the late Russell Thomas Jackson, a hard working coal miner, and the late Julia Popp Jackson, a homemaker who was a devout Roman Catholic who taught many generations their first grade catechism. His Mom was a wonderful cook and charter member of the Steelers and Penguins Nation. He had three older brothers — Thomas, Terry and Tim. One can only imagine what life must have been like in their home as they each inherited the strong personalities of their parents. His father suffered a debilitating stroke early in life. The boys became men quickly. His brother Terry was accepted into Yale on scholarship, and this opened opportunities for his brothers. Their diligent work ethic, coupled with their keen intellect, helped Tim and then his younger brother to be admitted on scholarship to The Choate, a Connecticut prep school with the likes of John F. Kennedy as alumni. There they rubbed elbows and were educated with the political and powerful elite families of the East Coast, but they never lost their common touch or forgot from whence they came, including their Hungarian ancestry.
After prep school, he was accepted to Haverford College, a top liberal arts college rooted in the Quaker traditions. Of course, he excelled at everything there and made lifelong friends. However, we must chuckle as we think about the Christmas we gave him a framed copy of a Haverford song whose lyrics referenced being “a right little, tight little Quaker.” This shall forever remain etched in our memory. The philosophical differences between The Choate and Haverford probably are about as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon, yet we know that they formed the man we came to love and respect like no other. Perhaps what led to his more mischievous side and sarcastic humor was his job as the house parent for a halfway house for juvenile delinquents. He knew all the tricks of their trade as he was a “rounder” as a child. But that more than anything, it led him to understand their needs so as to save many a lost soul with his kindness and tough love.
The University of Pittsburgh School of Law attracted his attention and upon admission he excelled as a member of the Law Review, Moot Court Board and ultimately the prestigious Order of the Coif. It was with great pleasure that we attended a dinner at Rossini’s in Ridgeland with him and his lifelong friend from law school, Ricardo Cicconi, and son Chris a few weeks before his untimely passing. It was fascinating to learn what kind of student he had been in law school, and to hear the crazy tales from his co-conspirator and stalwart. Even in law school, his peers knew he was special.
Upon graduation he went to work at the Rose Padden and Petty law firm in Fairmont, West Virginia. His prowess as a litigator was honed at the feet of his beloved mentor Herschel Rose. His cross examinations of witnesses were legendary and drew crowds to watch as he politely led unsuspecting witnesses to their demise. During this same period, he met the love of his life — Dr. Melinda Mullins. His brother Tim was a doctor on staff at the West Virginia University Hospital and he told his younger brother he had someone he wanted him to meet. A dinner party was arranged at Tim’s home, and throughout the night he kept finding himself alone with this intriguing and beautiful young doctor. He finally got the hint and asked her out. During that date, he taught her how to play bridge from start to finish, and the rest is history. Melinda’s specialties include internal medicine and psychiatry so we often joked that he married his therapist! Without question she was the only person in the same league as this intellectual giant. He knew he found his great love when he met her. Not only could she cook like a Master Chef, she could cure mental patients who could not talk, as well as make anything mechanical work like a charm. She was and is his soulmate and the love of his life.
In 1987, he and Melinda moved to Jackson where she went to work at the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield and he began his storied teaching career at Mississippi College. He was selected as a Justice Tom C. Clark United States Supreme Court Fellow in 1992 when he moved to Washington, D.C. and joined the Administrative Office of the United States Courts as a Senior Research Analyst. While there he was instrumental in assisting with the first Long Range Plan for the Federal Courts. His work served as a continuing blue print for the Federal judiciary which made him a much sought after commentator and expert. But alas, he returned to Mississippi College in 1993 and became the Owen Cooper Professor of Law where he went on to inspire law students, the bar and the bench to their highest potential.
His quest for knowledge and justice have inspired
generations of lawyers and judges to come.”
His encyclopedic knowledge of the law was of mythic proportion. Anyone who would call and ask his guidance will tell you he could rattle off cases and cites and could give you hornbook lessons on the most obscure areas of the law at the drop of a dime. Law firms and clients sought him out to be their expert or, at the very least, sought to get him out of the game because they feared being opposite him. Even though he was admitted to practice in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, he literally was the godfather of Mississippi law, having written or edited numerous treatises including the Mississippi Rules Annotated, Encyclopedia of Mississippi Law, Mississippi Insurance Law and Practice, Mississippi Civil Procedure, and Ethics and Professional Responsibility for Mississippi Lawyers and Judges, as well as multiple law review articles. He was the go to person for information on bar preparation and CLE/CJE’s. Countless lawyers and clients have benefited from his knowledge and expertise.
There were many passions that he had in his life besides serving his Lord and the law. One was his die hard love for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of course, he was a man who lived by rules. The first was never to interrupt him during a Steelers game. If you did, the wrath was swift and certain. As a student, you begged God to let the Steelers win every game before your class began. You knew that if the Steelers had a bad night, you would have a class you would never forget. Unwittingly he single handedly recruited entire sections of law school students into the Steeler nation. You had to root for them if for no other reason than survival in his class. Some of the best times were his epic Steelers Superbowl parties at his home where a TV was perched in every room. Thank goodness that the Steelers were so talented at winning games! We all need a Terrible Towel, don’t we!
His other sports team of choice was the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. No doubt his influence in Heaven brought the 2016 Stanley Cup home for the Penguins. It is our personal beliefs that the rough and tumble world of hockey was inspirational in his teaching methodology. He made learning a contact sport much like hockey. You had to keep your eye on the little puck (no pun intended) at all times and work with the players on the floor to score points for ultimate domination. It was not until recently that we learned that he was on the hockey team at The Choate. The visual of him slicing through the ice wielding a big stick as a young chap is almost more than we can comprehend!
Yet another of his passions was cooking and entertaining. He often joked that he loved to cook only to satisfy his more intense love which was eating. There is no telling how many thousands of mushroom cap appetizers he has prepared or how many dinner parties and extravaganzas he and Melinda have hosted at their home. When the holiday season rolled around, you knew what would be going on at their home. Literally hundreds of goody bags would be filled with delightful delicious candies, roasted pecans, cookies, etc. Their kitchen would be like a professional baking factory, as they would distribute their bundles of joy all over the country. No one ever walked away hungry or disappointed. However, if you wanted to see him go into overdrive, just tell him that you did not think he had enough food prepared for everyone. We often joked that we had to pick up a sack of Krystal hamburgers to eat when going to his home because we knew there would not be enough food.
His passion for his friends was overwhelming. You could count on him no matter what. He was a true friend in word and deed. He would reach out to his labyrinth of connections to help resolve problems or create solutions for those in need. We felt blessed from God to have him in our lives as a mentor, teacher, friend and brother. Paula and I often joked that he was my brother from a different mother or his Southern brother. To this day, we have never understood how I was selected by him to be in this coveted role, but you can sure bet that I was ever so proud of it. He helped launch our careers and marriage, and stood by us in the rain and the heat during elections, and cried with us as we said goodbye to loved ones. We cherished those texts and calls asking what we had done for him lately. It was his humorous way of reminding us that we needed to be doing something for somebody else every day in improving their lives in some small way.
His humor was never in short supply. Our families would go out to eat and he would always get the check, and then complain that I could not pick up a check because my arms were apparently too short to reach it. One of my most cherished reminders is a computer drawing he texted me just a week before his passing of a man with alligator arms. When I was finally able to wrestle the check away from him and pay for it, I caught unmitigated you know what. He would make a scene by getting the owner of the restaurant to be in the picture with us as I paid the bill. What we would not give now to get that grief again.
His biggest passion was for his family. Anyone who knew him knows this is an understatement. His love for his wife Melinda and his daughters Roxann and Elly was infinite and complete. It has been an absolute privilege watching both his daughters grow up from their early childhood to become impressive young adults. Their father thought the sun rose and set with them every day as their accomplishments were proudly displayed at home on the refrigerator, at the office or on his phone. He gave them the support and love they needed to flourish and grow into their own careers. They were the rock stars of his world and he wanted to share that with all around him. With good reason too, as the girls, as we affectionately referred to them, are some of the most talented, beautiful, smart and down to earth people you will ever meet. Their personalities are irresistible and are just a delight.
One only had to go visit their home to realize the vital role of Melinda in his life. She was his rock, his right hand and the love of his life. She managed to keep this gentle giant grounded yet never held back his reins. She sometimes tried to temper his irreverent behavior but rarely succeeded. He found great humor in inviting us over and suddenly changing into his bathrobe while exclaiming to Melinda that we might leave if they started turning off the lights. Melinda would just shake her head and say, “Jeffrey”. (One has not lived if you never saw Jeff Jackson in bathrobe and slippers! Just saying…). His rascally nature was quite the opposite of Melinda’s, and perhaps that is why their marriage was the envy of so many. They just clicked and everyone around knew it. Whether feeding the masses at their gatherings or dropping the calligraphy note of congratulations, you knew perfection when you saw it. This match was definitely made in heaven as we used to say, because she was the only one who could keep a handle on ”himself.” This was not lost on “himself.” He made no secret of how much he loved their date nights, their seasonal cocktail concoctions, the elaborate Christmas villages in their home, and quite truthfully their mornings on the back porch sipping coffee and reading the papers. Love, honor and cherish were words that meant something in their home.
It was two years ago that he learned that he had Stage IV prostate cancer. We cried and hugged as we learned the devastating news. In the face of not-great odds, he became a fearless cancer warrior. We all knew the pain that he had to be in, but he tried hard to never let it show. He constantly joked about his mortality when you would call just to say you were checking on him. If he needed something from us, he would point out that we had to do it because we couldn’t refuse a dying man. His quick wit and sarcastic humor was welcome and, as was typical, he always made a point to put those around him at ease … as if we were the ones facing the biggest challenge of our lives. His positive attitude made us believe he might just beat the big “C”. For two years we all journeyed the ups and downs of his treatment, but never once saw him ask why him or why now.
On April 26, 2016 after having a great day, he laid down to take a short nap and awoke in Heaven that evening. I can only imagine the first words that he heard as he approached the Pearly Gates. “Query, Professor Jeffrey Joseph Jackson are you ready to watch the Penguins take the Stanley Cup?” Then you can hear Jeff say, “May it please the Court? You betcha I am.” Then God says, “Come on in my good and faithful servant. Your Dad, Mom and Captain Jack (his beloved great nephew) are already watching the game and waiting on you.”
In this life, if we are lucky, that rare person crosses our path and their impact is immeasurable. Professor Jeffrey Joseph Jackson had a profoundly positive influence on every one who had the good fortune of meeting him. His legacy of love and respect for all is everlasting. His quest for knowledge and justice have inspired generations of lawyers and judges to come. He will be forever in our midst as we see his students in courtrooms and offices throughout the world. He has inspired us all to be better human beings and to take care of each other. Pray for strength, comfort and guidance for his family and friends in the days ahead. Rest in peace, dear friend, rest in peace — for your life was well and fully lived.