James Earl Jackson Sr., Aka "Stick"

Palestine lost a man of distinction Thursday, when James Earl Jackson Sr., Aka, “Stick,” drew his last breath. Jackson was found just before 7 a.m. near City Hall. No one knows yet what role near-freezing temperatures had in the homeless man's death.

Jackson, 66, was a downtown fixture, whether cooling out on a bench or camped out in, as he called it, the giz-a-boo (gazebo) near The Chamber. In Palestine, Stick stuck out. He was more recognizable than most members of City Council – and a lot more fun.

Gentle and witty, Jackson had, what Hope Station founder Brandon Greene called “a good light inside him.” The cat was subtle. He once noted the color of my socks matched the maroon pocket square in my suit jacket.

Carrying himself with a certain elegance, Stick dressed up for downtown  festivals, sometimes wearing, like a crown, a small turban. His gray beard made him look almost professorial. On him, a threadbare sports coat looked cool.

I never saw Jackson bum-rush a stranger for money. He was too polite for that. He had to know you first, or at least have a conversation, before asking for a little jingle. 

Chatty but private, Jackson would gracefully dodge personal questions. People who pried, like nosy journalists, had to settle for bits and pieces of his past mentioned in passing, such as military service or an ex-wife. He used his creativity to make hundreds of walking sticks.

For all his wit, charm, and intelligence, Stick was mentally ill, probably severely so, and an alcoholic. He could have stayed with family members – at least he said so – but preferred a life without strings. Greene, who occasionally brought him blankets and coffee, or took him to Church's for fried chicken, could not interest Jackson in any of Hope Station's long-term programs.

Still, to say that Stick, who likely was schizophrenic, chose a hard-knock life that ended alone on a freezing night, with two liquor bottles nearby, makes no more sense than to say an addict chooses to use heroin. Jackson's life was caught up in the sad cycle of the severely mentally ill: Addiction, disease, frequent arrests for minor offenses, homelessness.

Sixty years ago, the nation realized institutionalizing masses of mentally ill people was inhumane, ineffective, and costly. We shuttered our horrifying institutions and promised that those resources would go, instead, to treating the mentally ill in the community, with the aid of new psychotropic medications.

That promised was never kept. We closed our institutions without adequately funding community programs. Mentally ill people shuffled from institutions to the streets. County jails became our biggest mental health centers, as police officers and the criminal justice system acted as first responders for the mentally ill.

Jackson's last week was tough. On Tuesday, he was released from the Anderson County Jail, after serving five days on a misdemeanor trespassing charge. 

Stick reminded Palestine it wasn't immure to mental illness, poverty, or homelessness. He shamed the refrain, “Not in my backyard,” as it resisted local programs giving the homeless and near-homeless a chance to become independent. 

With Stick gone, who will remind us of our obligation to each another?

With a renaissance of artwork downtown, the city should commission a life-sized sculpture of a distinctive, thin, bearded man with a walking stick. Just call it “Stick.”

May he long walk among us.

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