When I finally met Keith Jackson last summer, I felt like I was meeting a friend. He didn’t know it, but we had already spent numerous Saturday’s together. While he was calling the biggest games in college football, I was a fan, enjoying not just the games, but the spectacle and excitement that college football creates and Keith communicated so skillfully to audiences.
When I listened to Keith call a game, it was easy to get lost in the excitement of the event. He was a nearly flawless professional-this was obvious to even a casual fan. What set Keith apart from other broadcasters is that he respected the games and their players enough to let events happen without forcing himself into their most special moments. He was the rare, skilled broadcaster who could add to a game without making a broadcast about himself. Although he did it better than anyone, he was like all broadcasters in that he populated his sportscasts with outstanding play-by-play calling and relevant facts. What set Keith apart from his sportscasting peers were his timely observations, occasional stories, and uncanny use of silence. His accounts of sporting events as they unfolded on live television produced a remarkable outcome: An event that connected with millions of individuals and by doing so, became a shared, national experience.
When Murrow College Director of Development Carol Kowalski and I spent an afternoon with Keith and Turi Ann last summer, it was an experience I anticipated and now treasure. During our time together, I learned a few things about the man I’d spent Saturdays listening to for decades. These are a few of my observations from our time together.
First, Keith understood that he didn’t need to be the center of attention to make an important contribution. This grew out of his recognition of the importance of the moment and a similar desire to support others. In Keith, I saw no self-driven need for recognition. Perhaps this should have been obvious to me given the tenor of his work, but his perspective was apparent during our conversations that afternoon. As he discussed his life, his family and his work, it was clear that he valued and cherished others. It seemed to me that Keith’s personal sense of fulfillment came, not from a sense of self-importance and accomplishment, but from a sense that he had contributed to the success of others.
Next, you couldn’t talk to Keith for long without him mentioning family, friends and the love of his life, Turi Ann. Keith and Turi Ann enjoyed a special relationship, which started when they met in Pullman. They were married in 1952 and the result was a lifelong partnership. I first noticed Keith talking about Turi Ann when he returned to Pullman for the building we dedicated in his name. She was always close by and he was genuinely pleased to have her involved in the festivities. It was clear to anyone who paid attention, they were a team. When we visited the Jacksons last summer, we stopped after lunch to take a few pictures. If you look at the pictures (check my Twitter account for one), you’ll note that Turi Ann is right in the middle of the photograph. As we set up for the photo, Keith asked Turi Ann to join us in the middle of the photograph-he wouldn’t have it any other way. Their decades-long relationship stands as a testament to the bond love creates.
Keith had a strong sense of who he was and this allowed him to be himself. It also made those around him comfortable. He had strong opinions and shared them freely. Even so, Keith’s humility, self-deprecating sense of humor, and the stories he told gave him an unpretentious charm. Ask about his time at WSU, and he’d tell a story about driving a campus garbage truck for money or a story about Turi Ann or her family. Ask about his experiences in the Soviet Union, and he’d tell the story of the Russian vase he struggled to get past Soviet security as a gift for Turi Ann, only to discover that it was made in India. Perhaps it came from his small-town Georgia roots, but being sure of himself allowed Keith to make others feel sure of themselves in the hospitable environment he and Turi Ann called home.
Keith was a leader. As we talked, Keith discussed his time in the Marines. Perhaps his experience serving our country strengthened his confidence and resolve. As I thought about it later, I realized that even as a college student Keith was a leader. A look at WSU’s yearbooks reveals that he was president of his freshman class, involved in a campus fraternity his freshman year, and played significant roles in student organizations and campus life. Clearly, his time at WSU allowed Keith to sharpen his leadership skills and to grow as a person.
Keith understood what it meant to be a Cougar. He was proud of his connection to WSU and incredibly supportive of the Murrow College. He and Turi Ann gave generously to the Murrow College and to other WSU institutions, as you might expect. We have a building, a newsroom, graduate fellowships, an excellence fund, a scholarship and more that bear the Jackson name. What you wouldn’t expect is that Keith, as busy as he was, took a personal interest in students and had a genuine desire to help them progress in their careers. Over the years, Murrow College has selected numerous broadcasting students as the Keith Jackson Student of the Year. I learned that Keith wrote personal letters to these award recipients, encouraging them in their professional endeavors and offering to mentor them. These were the kinds of letters the recipients put away for safe keeping, because they were personal, meaningful and encouraging.
Ultimately, Keith had pride in his work without being a proud person. If any of us have a reason for pride in the quality of our work, Keith had reason. Even now as I listen to him calling a game, I’m impressed by its quality. It’s almost as if I’ve forgotten how good a sportscast can be and, when I hear Keith again, I’m reminded of his tremendous work that was a regular part of my life for so many years. I’m grateful to have met Keith and Turi Ann Jackson. For me, it’s a special honor to have spent time with the man who, over decades of broadcasts, set the bar so high that is sits on the very top shelf where no one else will touch it.