PINELLAS PARK – Bill Jackson, entrepreneur of the adventurous sporting goods store in Pinellas Park that bore his name, died at 3:45 a.m. Jan. 29, 2014. He was 98.
His health began deteriorating after breaking his neck in a fall Jan. 6, his son, Darry Jackson, said. But up until that point, Bill Jackson was still going to the store several times a week. Even two days before his death, still wearing a halo brace and barely able talk, he had one request.
He kept saying, “I want to go to work,” according to his son.
“I don’t think he really comprehended that he really had a halo on,” Darry said.
Bill Jackson was unique in that he built not only a successful and evolving business on five acres along what would become U.S. 19, but that he filled it with the ambitious and pioneering facilities needed to pass along his passion for the outdoors.
Jackson’s Shop for Adventure includes four classrooms, a 100,000-gallon indoor pool to teach scuba diving, a gun range and an indoor training ski slope.
“If you were an accountant, you’d look at that and say, ‘You don’t make enough money off that. You should put merchandise there,’” Darry explained. “But he wanted to be able to teach and give everybody an outdoor experience.”
Jackson was born in 1915 and didn’t have a lot growing up, his son said. His mother died when he was 2.
“When he was young, he never got to do stuff in the outdoors,” Darry said.
The exception was a trip in a Model T Ford he took with friends to hike the Grand Canyon when he was 15.
But for his own sons, Darry and Doug, Jackson was determined to give them the opportunity to explore the outdoors. He taught them to scuba dive at age 4 and 5.
“Now, we would never recommend that to somebody,” Darry interjected quickly. “We didn’t know enough in those days to know that wasn’t right.”
In fact, Bill Jackson likely was the first store in Florida, if not the country, to sell scuba equipment. The Jacksons happened to be in the right place at the right time, just as a boat from Italy dropped off the first batch of Cressi and Squali equipment delivered to the United States in Miami.
The Jacksons started one of the first a scuba class at a St. Petersburg public pool in the 1950s.
Because Darry and Doug took an interest in camping at ages 6 and 7, the store began stocking camping equipment that was determined to the best by the family’s own research.
Jackson’s first truly outdoors department – fishing supplies – had been stocked mostly because the business’s first employee had an interest in the pastime.
In 1970, the Jacksons bought the land where the current store stills stands. Bill cleared space for a road with a machete, his wife, Harriet, collecting palmetto hearts with pruners in his wake. Together, they staked out the basic outline of the new store, which wouldn’t be completed until 1976.
Over the years, the humble business, which started with the World War II veteran selling rat poison, laundry bleach, office furniture and army surplus out of a home garage, grew into Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts.
Living up to its slogan “Shop for Adventure,” the store stocks a full range of equipment in seven departments: scuba diving, fishing, snow skiing, camping, backpacking, hunting and canoe and kayaking.
Darry said he most cherished the times when he helped his father shape a vision for the future of the business.
“He always used to tell me that I bought too much of some product,” he said. “We just had great meetings. We’d sit and talk about the future of Bill Jackson’s.”
The store underwent a number of expansions, including a fishing shack and a porch out to Freedom Lake, built around trees that Harriet Jackson insisted must stay.
“It’s fun to be able to go over things like that with both my parents,” Darry said.
He said his father instilled in him and his brother – who have long since taken over the day-to-day operation of the store and its full schedule of classes – a propensity for constant improvement.
“You always wanted something better, to make the business a better business,” he said. “It sure wasn’t like this when he stared. It changes and keeps changing.”
The family will hold a private service at the gravesite this weekend. A celebration of life will be held in the Bill Jackson classrooms Sunday, Feb. 23, “where he would like to be,” Darry said. The family will serve up his favorite, pepper hot dogs, and show a slide presentation of his life, starting with a picture taken in 1930 with his three friends at the Grand Canyon.
Along with his sons, his daughter-in-law Sharon and two granddaughters, Meischa and Marieka, Bill Jackson is survived by his wife. The couple celebrated their 67-year anniversary in December.