Jackson devoted life to Chillicothe

Karen Danner
Art Jackson

Chillicothe City Cemetery welcomed the man determined to make it a shining example today, as the city mourned the death of another community treasure.

As cemetery and parks supervisor, Art Jackson tended the cemetery with the help of his crews for years, squelching past criticism about the cemetery’s care.

For him, it became a quest to keep the grounds in pristine condition.

Now, those grounds will be his final resting place. Jackson worked for Chillicothe for many years, and his work ethic fueled his desire to see his hometown prosper.

One of those who knew him best was Bill Prather. Jackson and Prather were in the same class throughout their school years at Pearce Grade School and Chillicothe Township High School.

“You couldn’t help but like Art,” said Prather. “He cared about the community and about trying to help people wherever he could.”

Jackson served for more than 20 years on the Claud-Elen Days committee and ran the sound system for the annual event at City Park. He also did the sound for the Fourth of July at Cutright Park.

“Whenever Art was asked to help with anything, he was always there to lend a hand,” said Prather. “He found it hard to say 'no' to anybody.”

Prather recalled one year prior to the Fall Festival, Jackson was all smiles when telling him that he and fellow co-chair, Chet Brown, had booked country singer Porter Wagoner to perform in Chillicothe.

When a sequined Wagoner stepped off his bus, a pretty little girl got off with him. Her name was Dolly Parton.

“Art reveled in the fact that him and Chet could get such big-name talent to come to Chillicothe,” said Prather.

Prather used to host an annual appreciation fish fry, and Jackson was one of four men who devoted many nights fishing on the Illinois River to stock the cookers.

To Jackson’s credit, he also concocted his own special fish batter. Then-Peoria County sheriff George Shadid attended one of the fish fries at the Peoria Casting Club and remarked how good the fish tasted.

A few years later, he requested Jackson cook up a mess of fish for the guys at the Hanna City Sportsmen’s Club.

Prather said Jackson took his job as cemetery and parks supervisor very seriously, dreaming of making Chillicothe City Cemetery look like a manicured golf course.

“Art prided himself on getting it in top condition for Memorial Day, as well as all the holidays, despite the heavy rains in the spring which made it virtually impossible,” said Prather.

When Jackson came to the Claud-Elen committee asking for help to get the cemetery caretaker’s building wired and usable, the committee easily said 'yes.'

Jackson then proceeded to wire the building himself, with a little help. He also did a lot of wiring at City Park.

“Art was pretty handy, and pretty fussy, too,” noted Prather.

Jackson’s brother-in-law, Marvin Safford, said Jackson was one of the most knowledgeable people he knew concerning general mechanics and his construction abilities.

“He was an excellent brother-in-law,” said Safford. “He was always willing to help you with whatever he could. It’s a big loss for everyone, not just his family, but his friends, too.

Jackson came from a family of 12 children. In 1992, the two adopted brothers were finally located and the group reunited at last.

Ironically, three of Jackson’s brothers ­— Clifford, James and William — drowned in the Illinois River in April 1968 when their boat capsized.

City clerk Sharon Crabel often worked with Jackson on cemetery matters.

“Art was a very hard worker, a kind and caring person and a dedicated employee for the city of

Chillicothe,” Crabel said. “He took time to help people find graves. He’d go out of his way to be kind to them.”

Ward IV alderman Judy Cantwell, who serves as cemetery/parks committee chairman, worked hand in hand with Jackson for several years.

“He’s irreplaceable,” said Cantwell, “Any community in the country would have been blessed to have had him. We were very lucky he was in ours.”

Life in a river town

As a child, Jackson lived on a boat for awhile with his family, moored in the area between the current boat docks and J.T. Fennell.

His father worked for the state, but barely made enough to support his growing family.

At age 13, Jackson took a job on a river barge and sent some money home to help care for his family.

He managed to save enough, however, to buy lumber and eventually build his family a home by Moffitt Nature Park.

As soon as he reached the required age, Jackson enlisted in the Army, still sending most of his pay home to his family so they could live.

He remembered how upset his parents — William T. and Dora B. Kee Jackson — were when, during the Depression, the state took five of the Jackson boys to a children’s home in

Bloomington, saying the family could not afford to care for them.

Two of the boys — Bill and Leroy — were eventually adopted, but the trio of Clifford, Andrew and Francis escaped and eventually found their way back to Chillicothe.

The Jackson family finally totaled 12 children, with the others being named James, William Dewey, Catherine, Dora and two stillborn infants.

Just out of the Army in 1955, Jackson went on a hunting trip with some other guys, and one of them had a sister named Joyce Elizabeth Safford, who lived in Streator at the time.

At the age of 15, Joyce, also from a struggling family, married 24-year-old Art Jackson.

The newlyweds lived in Chillicothe, where Jackson worked full-time for the city and part-time at Semtner Sheet Metal.

“We’ve been here ever since,” said Joyce.

Over the years, Jackson worked as owner of Art’s Heating and Air, and at Advanced Asphalt, Aggregate Equipment and Martin Marietta, as well as being a Chillicothe policeman.

He volunteered with both the Chillicothe Fire Department and Rescue 33.

Most residents always knew Jackson would be on hand during Claud-Elen Days, Fourth of July, the Corn Boil and the Rib Classic, seeing to the sound equipment and the music heard throughout the parks.

After years of searching, Joyce finally located the two adopted Jackson boys in 1992.

Bill, who lived in California, flew into the Peoria Airport, and Leroy, an Aurora resident, drove to Chillicothe for a massive family reunion spotlighted by television cameras and news crews.

Finally, the remaining Jackson children were together at last.

In the past, Jackson had suffered five heart attacks, the first at age 26, as well as three strokes, and dealt with diabetes.

Even with such life-threatening health problems, Jackson daily tended to Chillicothe City Cemetery and lent a hand wherever he could.

“He was at work longer than he was at home,” Joyce noted, who took sharing her husband with others in the community as routine.

His death on the Illinois River Aug. 5 started as just another fishing trip, one of Jackson’s greatest pleasures in life.

His past history with the Illinois River — living there as a child and losing three brothers in its waters — has not escaped his family and friends.

“It was meant to be,” said Joyce. “Everybody will miss Art. We sure will. He went out with a bucket of fish doing what he wanted to do. Now he’s probably up there with his son, Randy, and

all the rest of his family having a fish fry.”