Ernest W. Jackson, the “Mayor of Lake and Florence” Photo by Bob Seidenberg

When Amy Nedoss and her husband, Joseph, moved into their home at 1606 Lake St. some 17 years ago, one of the first people they met was Ernest W. Jackson, who owned the property next door.

“And he welcomed us with a big smile. He’s got a great laugh; he’s just a wonderful man,” said Ms. Nedoss, speaking at the June 3 City Council Human Services Committee meeting.

But “what was impressive, as we were new coming to this neighborhood,” she said, “was that on any given day, there would be a half dozen kids from Penny Park or around the ‘hood,’ who were just hanging in the middle of his driveway with him. It was a place they could go, tell jokes, talk about their day at school, and they were with him, and he was accepting of that. They were cooling off after playing in Penny Park. He’s just a pillar of that corner; his presence is felt by all.”

Evanston City Council members officially confirmed that at their regular June 24 meeting, voting unanimously in favor of a resolution designating a portion of Florence Avenue between Lake and Greenwood streets with an honorary street name sign, “Ernest W. Jackson Way.”

Neighbors and officials are tentatively scheduled to gather at noon on July 20 at the corner of Lake Street and Florence Avenue for the official installation of the sign.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, in whose Second Ward Mr. Jackson has been a longtime resident, encouraged Mr. Jackson’s daughter. Kathryn Jackson Bradley, to apply for the special honor.

“He truly is an icon in the neighborhood,” said Ald. Braithwaite.

Mr. Jackson, who turned 96 in March, initially came to the area in 1958, leaving the family farm in Elkmont, Ala., Ms. Jackson Bradley said in her application.

His original goal was “to make a lot of money and move back to the family farm, but something about the allure and draw of Evanston has had him remain here,” she said.

Originally landing in Winnetka, he  worked as a handyman and cleaned homes and businesses throughout the area, finding full-time work with Old Orchard Bank [later First American], in charge of maintenance for 30 years.

It was at one of his side jobs, though, at a brokerage house, where the owners took him aside and introduced him to investments.

Mr. Jackson took a strong interest in the subject, which neatly meshed with his experience on the family farm. “You’ve got to plant in order to grow,” he explained.

 One of his early “plantings” was McDonald’s Corporation at $18 a share. Its present value is around $210.

“He’s not shaken by the market,” observed his daughter. “If something goes up and down, he’s steady. He’s going to hold on. He always tells you if you’re going to invest, it’s risk-taking, and you have to be in position to take a risk.”

“If a stock splits, he thinks it’s Christmas,” added Ms. Jackson Bradley.  “He calls you, he’s so happy.”

In 1964, Mr. Jackson and his former wife. Dorothy Henry, pooled together some of their funds to purchase the current house at 1604 Lake St. and an adjoining property at 1428 Florence Ave.

The Florence Avenue property was designated an Evanston Historical Landmark in 1989, largely because of its unique sloped shingle roof, Ms. Jackson Bradley said.

In his 55 years in the neighborhood, Mr. Jackson has maintained a strong interest in the community, she said, frequently attending neighborhood meetings and playing an active role in the 1991 building of Penny Park, the wood playground structure and a neighborhood gathering point.

Along with those activities, “Mr. Jackson has taken pride in maintaining his properties, as well as paying great attention to the fine details of his lawn,” Ms. Jackson Bradley said.

She said her father is also appreciative of the diverse neighborhood with its wide sidewalks as being hospitable for walkers and of the energy of both young and established families.

Mr. Jackson has been affectionately called the “Mayor of Lake and Florence” and is known for giving his neighbors “friendly waves, encouragement, wisdom and sage advice – from lawn care to financial literacy,” read the resolution approved by the City Council.

The resolution continued, “When the weather is nice, he can be seen walking through the neighborhood or finding a comfortable seat in his yard with a view.”

Speaking at the Human Services Committee meeting, Cameron Ellis, a neighborhood resident, said though he and his family have lived on Mr. Jackson’s block now for many years, “it is Mr. Jackson’s block – there’s no better way to define it,” said Mr. Ellis. “He has been in this neighborhood, also known as the Penny Park neighborhood, for many decades, and many of us have him to thank for getting to know other neighbors that we otherwise may not have met. He is truly the anchor of a neighborhood that keeps getting better and better.”

Mr. Jackson “is always available as an ambassador to our neighborhood to anybody passing by that would care to talk,” he continued. “Anybody who does stop to talk, without having a say in the manner, has been encouraged to better themselves, to work to advance in work, to get an education, to make sure your children get an education, especially college, and put money aside.”

“Mr. Jackson and I have conversations that I would not have expected – about the stock market, politics and race, among other things,” he told Committee members. “It has been an honor and education knowing Mr. Jackson.”

In an interview, Mr. Jackson said reaching out to others grew naturally out of his experience on the family farm in the post-Depression years.

In those days, when people needed help, they “needed help right away,” he said. Black and white families, “everybody would share.” If someone ran out of basic pantry items, “you could go to a house and borrow,” he said.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.