Thomas ‘Jet’ Jackson honored with building dedication

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Thomas “Jet” Jackson has been a staple in the St. Petersburg community for decades and Saturday he was honored for all of his hard work and dedication to the City of St. Petersburg.

Wildwood Recreation Center, located at 1000 28th St. S., is now officially named the Thomas “Jet” Jackson Recreation Center. Jackson has worked for the city for more than 50 years and was recognized for his diligent work throughout the community.

“He’s given his life, his time, his dedication to this community, to this city,” said Parks and Recreation Director Mike Jefferis who has worked with Jackson for some 20 years. “Jet is an amazing role model, a mentor and he’s a guiding light.”

Usually great civil servants such as James B. Sanderlin and Douglas Jamerson are recognized for their great accomplishments and dedication after they’ve passed, but State Representative Darryl Rouson and Councilman Wengay Newton decided it was time to pay homage to Jackson while he was still alive and kicking.

“I passed by Wildwood and it hit me that this is where it began for not just him, but for many of us,” said Rouson describing the moment inspiration to rename the center hit him. He had just left Jackson’s 70th birthday bash at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum where he took note of the countless number of friends and family that hovered around Jackson, all celebrating another year of life.

Jackson is known for his giving spirit, a trait that he is remembered to have had even as a young man. From his start as a lifeguard at just 16, he has made a splash in the community. An athlete in his younger years, Jackson was nicknamed “Jet” by his peers for his running ability. He is also credited with teaching thousands of youths to swim at South Mole Beach, now known as Demons Landing, and Jennie Hall Pool.

Soon he became supervisor of Wildwood Recreation Center, not realizing that decades later he would be recognized for all his hard work and contributions there.

“Give him his roses when he can smell them,” said Councilman Wengay Newton who has known Jackson more than 50 years. He has been to many dedication events in which men and women are honored for their good deeds to the community after they have already passed away. “The only problem is [they] ain’t never going to hear.”

Jackson touched the lives of many in the community and Newton was no exception. Although he tried to keep it light, Newton had a hard time fighting back tears when he spoke of Jackson and what he means to the community. But mostly he cried for the African-American youths that may not have a mentor or someone they can turn to when times are tough.

“I was ready to check out,” said Newton who relived in just a few short moments the difficult upbringing he experienced as a child, a mom struggling to get by, a dad who deserted him and his seven siblings. “Hearing those words from strong black men, people like Jet Jackson, that’s what made me so determined.”

Presently Jackson manages Athletics and Therapeutic Recreation and the recreation facilities Enoch Davis Center, Lake Vista, Gladden, Childs Park, Roberts, Bay Vista and the Sunshine Center for seniors.

Jackson is also known for his cool demeanor in the face of adversity. Remembered as an African-American pioneer who bulldozed the walls of segregation in the parks and recreation department during a time when separate meetings were the norm and all the city’s residents weren’t treated equally, Jackson stuck to his morals and convictions, always rising above the situation and treating everyone with respect.

“In a time when the city was viciously discriminating against a good portion of its population, Jet provided support and he did it with dignity, with grace, with humility,” shared Council Vice Chair Steve Kornell. Jackson always showed a love and respect for everybody around him, even when they weren’t giving him the same treatment. “I think that makes Jet a tremendous human being and a great leader.”

A sentiment shared by everyone he meets. “He’s genuine,” said Council Chair Bill Dudley. “What you see is what you get.”

Other community leaders came out to pay tribute to Jackson. Both Mayor Rick Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Dr. Kanika Tomalin were in attendance. Tomalin, a native of St. Petersburg, used to play alongside Jackson’s daughters and still views them as close friends.

“These are our parks, our camps, our schools,” she said noting how far the city has come and how far it still has to go. “The opportunities we enjoy are harvested from a field of sacrifice planted by you and those who came before us,” she said speaking of Jackson’s tireless dedication to the youths of the community throughout the years.

Like school board member Rene Flowers whose life was touched by Jackson at the ripe old age of six. She used to tag along with her older sister when Jackson was working at Campbell Park. Flowers fondly remembers Friday night dances and her time on the swim team, but what stands out most in her mind is the at home feeling she always received from Jackson and his wife Rhonda.

“You were always made to feel like part of his family,” said Flowers who has enjoyed many Sunday dinners at the Jackson residence where advice was plentiful even when you didn’t ask for it. She thanked both Jackson and his wife for always welcoming not just her, but so many other young and impressionable youths into their hearts.

“He didn’t just raise his family, he raised a lot of us,” continued Flowers.

So now the recreation center that stands adjacent to the historical Jennie Hall Pool will forever be remembered as the stomping grounds where Thomas “Jet” Jackson touched the lives of thousands of people. Generations from now will know the legacy of Jackson and his many accomplishments in the community.

The Thomas “Jet” Jackson Recreation Center offers before and after school services and summer camps, as well as fun teen programs.

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