Mannie Jackson acknowledges that he has "great genetics," and by that he means the bright, strong and thoughtful grandfathers and father who gave him lifelong guidance.
Even at the age of 73, the former University of Illinois basketball great, business executive and philanthropist says he hears and heeds their advice.
"I almost quit junior high school," said Jackson, who grew up in segregated Edwardsville before coming to the UI in 1956. "I had a job making $55 a week at a country club there. I had cash. I had a nice car and a boss who really liked me and taught me how to play golf, and I was loving it. He said, 'Why in the hell are you going to play basketball and go to some college and become a teacher or something else and be crapped around on for the rest of your life? You've got the best world right here.'"
That's when his grandfather, Sylvester Jackson, an engineer's assistant at Granite City Steel, stepped in.
"He said, 'You know, this is what you're going to do. This is what's going to happen,'" Mannie Jackson related last week. "'This isn't just about you going to school. When you go to school, you're carrying thousands of people before me with you, people who never had the chance.'"
"You've got the magic carpet," his grandfather told him in what he says was a defining moment in his life. "I wake up every morning and say, 'I really have been given a magic carpet. Don't blow it.'"
His grandfather didn't even like basketball, Mannie Jackson said. "He knew it was a magic carpet, a means to an end. The end he looked at is what I'm doing now. If he's looking right now, he's saying, 'Buddy, that's what I was talking about.'"
When he speaks of "now," he's referring to the latest turn in his fascinating life, his commitment to philanthropy in his old hometown and at the UI.
At the university, Jackson created the Mannie L. Jackson Illinois Academic Enrichment and Leadership Program in the College of Applied Health Sciences. In Edwardsville, he purchased the old "separate but equal" Lincoln School building he attended in the 1940s and '50s, and intends to make it a center for the humanities.
"That location was always a sense of shame for African-Americans and for the community," Jackson said. "And that property, which I purchased five years ago, will become a place of pride very quickly."
He wants it to become a place "set up to bring in people like Nelson Mandela and Colin Powell and the Kennedy family, Bill Clinton," people to come in and talk about issues and concerns.
It's important, Jackson said, that people "discuss issues that will make our community kinder, safer and better."
It's a point that was made painfully, some on-camera and some off-camera, in a UI-produced documentary to run Feb. 18 on the Big Ten Network. Called "Mannie Jackson: From Boxcar to Boardrooms," it takes its title from Jackson's memoir, tracing his birth in 1939 in a railroad boxcar south of St. Louis, to his success on the basketball court and as a corporate executive.
In one emotional segment, Jackson sits with his high school basketball teammates and recounts how they could function as a unit on the basketball court, but when the game was over and it was time to celebrate at a local restaurant, he and other blacks on the team had to eat in the kitchen while the white players ate in the dining room.
"Not one player walked up to that little porthole into the kitchen, watching their teammates do this, and said, 'I'm not going to eat, or I'll stay back here with you.'" Jackson says in the documentary. "That's a scar that if they ever skin me back and say what's going on in this body, somewhere that scar of misunderstanding and disappointment and concern is still there."
It's a point that goes unanswered in the film. But Jackson said those old high school teammates wept and apologized for abandoning him.
"We didn't know there was any other way," they told him.
Communications is the difference now, Jackson insists.
"The cool thing about the book and my life is that it kind of navigates through this period when there were groups of people, the African-Americans, who were separate but not equal, and the laws, the culture and the society tolerated that," Jackson said. "Unlike today, where we have Facebook and tweets and you can talk about things and see them, in those days those kinds of problems weren't talked about. One of the gentlemen there, who is a prominent attorney, said that when he raised the issue with his dad, he said, 'If you want to become an attorney and become successful in this community, you'd best keep you mouth shut.'"
One of the keys to success, Jackson said, is to recognize that "obstacles are just opportunities."
"Everybody has something to overcome. There's not a person who wakes up in the morning that doesn't have some crap they've got to get through. I don't make a big deal of the crap I had to get through with discrimination and segregation. It's just some crap I had to get through. Everybody has something they've got to overcome to make it through the day. It's that strength that says, 'I'm going to do it anyway; I'm going to figure out how to do it.' That's the notion I want to instill in just one person, or to hear other people say, 'I can do the right thing. I'm not going to be stopped by these minor irritations.'"
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.