August 3, 1945 - March 7, 2001
Willis Jackson, a crusader for newspaper diversity and a mentor to hundreds of journalists he called "my children," died Wednesday night March 7, 2001 in a San Francisco hospice. He was 55.
Jackson was editor of the Oakland Tribune until February 2000 when a series of illnesses, including cancer and liver and kidney failure, forced him to cut back on his duties. He was reassigned as editor at large at the paper once owned by his "hero" Robert Maynard, the nation's first African-American to own a metropolitan daily.
Jackson's legacy lives in Martin Reynolds, an assistant editor at the Oakland Tribune. In Lawrence Young, editor of the Arlington Morning News. In Erna Smith, a journalism professor at San Francisco State. And so on.
He coaxed and coached hundreds of reporters, many of them minorities, and today Jackson's proteges are found in newspapers, academia, magazines and broadcast stations throughout the nation.
"It gives me great pride to know that people like myself and Bob and Nancy Maynard have been the reason many minorities have chosen journalism as their career and made significant contributions," Jackson told a local Society of Professional Journalists audience in 1999 when he accepted a career achievement award.
Jackson had said when he applied for his first newspaper job 35 years ago that a woman simply told him no porters were needed. He replied he wanted to be a reporter. He went on to work at the Wichita Eagle-Beacon, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Dallas Times Herald, the Dallas Weekly, the Washington Post, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Oakland Tribune.
He had also headed the news bureau in the Office of Public Affairs at San Francisco State and was program director at the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in Oakland.
He later said he felt lonely at the Eagle-Beacon because he was the only minority there. So he began recruiting youngsters into journalism, a practice he continued throughout his career.
"He saw the potential in young people, often more than they had seen in themselves," said Felix Gutierrez, senior vice president at the Freedom Forum's Newseum.
His efforts weren't limited to the young. No matter what a reporter's age or experience, Jackson offered to tap his vast connections and help that person find a better job.
"He got a job in journalism just before the door was opening so he knew what it was like" without minorities, Gutierrez said. "Then he went through the token period, when every newspaper needed one, but not more than one."
Jackson found his way to the Tribune in 1990. He was working at San Francisco State at the time and wanted to moonlight as a copy editor, said Eric Newton, who hired him.