WILMINGTON — “If you grew up in the Brooklyn area of Wilmington, you knew Earl Jackson Sr.,” Jeannett Age said. “This man impacted the lives of many, especially the youth.”
Age is the former daughter-in-law of Jackson; her son, Andrew Earl Jackson, carries forth the family name. There is a lot of weight to the moniker — especially on the Northside of downtown Wilmington.
In 1992, the city brandished the Northside pool the “Earl Jackson Swimming Complex,” today known as the Earl Jackson Splash Pad and Pool. It was one of many places Jackson would work with local youth.
Brandon Hickman — known as “Bigg B,” a program director for Cumulus — said he can remember the neighborhood boys lining up at the pool, towels in hand, during the summer by 9 a.m. awaiting “Papa Jack.”
“We already knew, if you didn’t make it by 9:10 a.m., you’re left,” he said.
Jackson had many nicknames, but “Papa Jack” endeared him to kids and teens alike.
“No matter what they called him, when they called, he answered and encouraged them to become productive citizens,” Reverend Kojo Nantambu said.
“He included everyone,” Terry Jackson added. “He would go across town and find the best players.”
The men were speaking to a crowd of 60 that gathered at the Northside pool on May 22 to once again honor Jackson — this time in a mural dedication.
Jackson lived in the neighborhood, three blocks away from the Boys and Girls Club, where he worked for 47 years as a health and physical education director, a game room supervisor and program director. He started a drum corps and coached students in various sports.
“He knew what your gift was,” Hickman, who grew up on the Northside, said at the ceremony. “Sports and athleticism was his thing, but one day I came into his gym and he said, ‘You know what? ‘You’re pretty good on the drums.’ That’s when I knew music would be my thing, but he encouraged me without doubting me.”
One of the murals at the Earl Jackson Splash Pad and Pool was created by Janna Robertson, Jessie Robertson and kids from DREAMS of Wilmington. It showcases Jackson holding a basketball in a gymnasium, speaking to a group of kids gathered around him.
It’s a real-life representation from one of the photos Robertson gathered as inspiration from the Jackson family, Boys and Girls Club, and Northside pool. Some pictures had water damage, others were faded, but the artist said the sentiment of each was crystal clear.
“This man left a legacy,” Robertson said. “He was like the neighborhood father.”
Age said many athletes Jackson trained moved on to have fruitful college and professional careers: Trot Nixon, Lonnie Smith, Ray Charles Leonard.
“During Earl’s retirement celebration, Michael Jordan sent a lovely letter and an autographed Rolex watch,” Age said. “Reverend Meadowlark Lemon [who played with the Harlem Globetrotters] was one of many of his best friends and paid tribute to Earl at his Home Going Celebration.”
Jackson passed away in 1998 at Lower Cape Fear Hospice at the age of 73.
Robertson became friends with the Jackson family over a year ago when they approached her about doing a mural for the Northside pool. Portraiture artist Evelyn Fisher volunteered to create a four-by-four round headshot of Jackson that hangs on the front of the building right underneath the name.
To represent the coach’s morale and selflessness, Roberston decided bringing youth into the project would be a memorial come full-circle. Over 100 kids — also from NSEA Swim and the Jackson family — lent a painting hand.
DREAMS students created the blue and green background of the gymnasium piece, which includes handprints of Jackson’s family flanking either side.
A third mural, located on the back of the bathhouse facing the swimming pool, showcases bright, vivid colors of an underwater landscape. Colorful fish and marine life were created by the kids of NSEA Swim.
The murals are mounted onto aluminum boards and can be removed in the event upfits or repairs are needed on the structure.
It also made it easy for Robertson to schlep the canvas to ensure all the kids could contribute to the art.
“I could pop it in my car and drop it off at a class at DREAMS for the day,” she said.
It’s not the first time Robertson has had her art displayed publicly in the city — even on the Northside. She created the “Forest of Dreams” at DREAMS Center for Arts Education and the “Black Lives Do Matter” installation in Jervay Park.
She just launched Thursday her first LLC, Community Art Collaborative, with plans to bring more public art to the forefront of community engagement.
Robertson gifted six murals, including the three at the Earl Jackson Pool, to the city. In total, they value $12,000. Roberston paid for all the supplies from grants. The city funded the installation of them at the Northside swimming pool.
“The city is committed to investing in the Northside of Wilmington,” spokeswoman Jennifer Dandron told Port City Daily earlier in the year. “The murals allow us to further that investment by helping beautify the Northside and celebrating the legacy of Northside community members and organizations.”
Robertson said the three other murals will be on the Hemenway Community Center, home to Voyage, a nonprofit dedicated to “connecting youth to pathways of success.” In fact, the kids of Voyage and students from GLOW helped design the works, to be unveiled this summer.
The appeal of murals, Robertson said, aside from bringing color and life to otherwise drab structures, is unifying multiple hands and young minds to complete a worthwhile goal.
“The magic in the art is the kids feel they did it,” Robertson said.
It’s a sentiment that parallels what many praise of Jackson’s modeled behavior. He was named “Father of the Year” by former Governor Jim Martin in 1989 and had a day, March 24, proclaimed to him by New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robert G. Greer in 1995.
“He worked hard to develop the minds and bodies of the youth in hopes that their dreams would come true,” Age said. “They valued him as if he was a ‘pearl.’”
The Earl Jackson Splash Pad and Pool is located at 750 Bess St. and open Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $1 for ages 1 through 17 and $3 for ages 18 and up.
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