Anyone caught painting the chimney atop Springfield High School, long a senior class tradition, would be expelled, the adults said as graduation neared for the Class of 1988. Shortly afterward, “88” showed up in white paint on the chimney. Administrators hadn’t bargained on Jerry Jacobson, whose daughter was a senior. And Jacobson knew a wrong when he saw one.
It was years before Jacobson ’fessed up, telling his family how he had sauntered into the school and made his way to the rooftop. He was pushing 60 at the time and so could not be expelled. For Jacobson, it was about school spirit and sticking up for people and principles – he did that sort of thing a lot, and regardless of odds.
“The more hopeless the case, the more interested my dad got,” recalls Josh Jacobson, Jerry Jacobson’s son.
Jerry Jacobson loved Springfield High School and the school loved him back, with students creating an emoji to honor a man who became a constant at athletic events, leading cheers and making sure, always, to wear red and black. Uber was a godsend after bum knees forced him into a wheelchair – no longer did he have to pester his wife for rides to games.
“There would be stuff to do, I didn’t have time,” Doranne Jacobson, his widow, explains. She found out what her husband had become when high schoolers in prom dresses descended on him after spotting the couple on a downtown street. “Here’s these gorgeous girls, all saying ‘Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!’” Doranne Jacobson says. “I asked him, ‘Jerry, who are these girls?’ It was his own thing. He loved it.”
Jacobson celebrated his 90th birthday in June via Zoom and serenaded by bagpipes. His obituary described his death in August as unexpected and the cause as heart failure. He liked puns and singing and dressing up in costumes and writing limericks and listening to NPR and sending letters to the editor. He fought to preserve things all over town – even the Stratton building was lovely in his eyes. He once rubbed shoulders with celebrities and dodged a grizzly bear.
Born in the Bronx, Jacobson was 50 when he arrived in Springfield to take a job at the Illinois State Museum in 1980. Long a sports fan and equally long a lousy athlete, he wrote sports for the New York Herald Tribune while a student at City College of New York. He was drafted after graduation and went to Korea, where he earned a Bronze Star in recognition of efforts writing for Army publications.
His Army stint over, Jacobson went back to New York, landed a job in public relations and lunched with the likes of Liberace and Anne Bancroft. Then he took a turn, enrolling in Columbia University to study anthropology, a field that led him to Alaska and beyond.“We met in the anthropology department,” Doranne Jacobson says. “Anthropologists tend to marry one another. I saw a handsome guy who was just back from Alaska – he’d been trekking around the tundra, looking for stone tools. He was talking about being chased by a grizzly bear. That all seemed rather romantic. He was older. He looked at me. I looked at him. And bingo.”
The couple married in 1963, the same year as the march on Washington, where they watched Martin Luther King, Jr. tell America that he had a dream. “I convinced him that India was a great place for anthropology,” Doranne Jacobson recalls. “He said, ‘No, I was about to take a job in Nebraska.’”
After landing in central India, Jacobson proved expert at dispatching rats, mice and snakes, mostly with traps and the latter by spear. It was, his widow recalls, a point of pride – he kept count. “We had snakes in the garden and rats in the woodwork – it was their home, not ours,” Doranne Jacobson remembers. For two years, the couple lived with no telephone, electricity or running water in weather so hot they sometimes slept outside. There were water buffalo. Both he and she came down with hepatitis: “It just ruins your life for six weeks,” Doranne Jacobson says. “You adjust to where you are. Jerry was always a good sport. Did he know how to curse? Absolutely.”
Jacobson became an anthropology professor at his alma mater after returning to New York, but after nine years, money for education fell short, and he lacked tenure. He’d once done research at Dickson Mounds, and so moved to the Midwest. After two years at the Illinois State Museum, he got a job at the Illinois Department of Transportation, where he worked to ensure that construction projects didn’t destroy the old and irreplaceable.
After retirement, Jacobson pushed to save, some might say, darn near everything, from remains of the 1908 race riot to overlooked houses Abraham Lincoln might have seen. “I tried to encourage him to take a pass on quite a few,” Doranne Jacobson recollects. “He really got interested in the whole historic preservation thing, he really got fascinated: old Springfield is still here, among all the other things that are going on in Springfield.”
Not everything was saved: Jacobson won a few and lost a few. Maybe the score didn’t matter, much as he loved sports. Fourteen years after painting the Springfield High School chimney, Jacobson smuggled a cloth banner into the Springfield armory, since closed, when George W. Bush, then president, addressed a sympathetic crowd shortly before the United States invaded Iraq.
Looking harmless, Jacobson was seated up front. His wife, scheduled to fly to India the next day, could not risk arrest, but she watched from far away as her husband unfurled his anti-war banner from his coat and shouted, “No war! No war! No war!” He was led away, but not jailed.
“Of course I wanted him to do it – I wanted to do it, too,” Doranne Jacobson says. “I guess I felt all the things you feel when you see things that you can’t stop.
“I was proud of him for doing it.”