Monday, June 29, 2009

StarText People: Ed Jackson

Reader Note: Outside of the staff, most who were there would agree the one most influential persons through the formative years of StarText was Ed Jackson. It was almost as if Ed and StarText crossed paths by some Grand Plan. I wouldn't disagree. The following is something I authored in 1994 during a public library donation drive generated by StarText subscribers in the Jacksons' honor.

This is one in a continuing series tracing the history of StarText. Read it from the beginning by using the Archive Post links on the right.

Back in 1982, the year it all began, one of the first customers to sign up for fledging new service called StarText was a man named Ed Jackson, StarText ID number 1125. It soon became apparent Ed wasn't just another subscriber.

Right from the beginning, sitting in front of his Apple IIE and its 300 baud- modem, Ed fell in love with StarText and what it represented. He called StarText the "best bargain since nickel parking in Cleburne." And thanks to the magic of electronic mail, Ed made his presence known to all.

A day didn't go by without receiving a mail message from 1125. His letters were long and punctuated by capitalized words (he always capilatized words he wanted to emphasize). They were filled with praise, enthusiasm, humor and suggestions for this marvelous new medium called videotex. But more than anything else, Ed contributed ideas.

When Ed discovered new users were having trouble making their Apple computers work, he volunteered to help out by fielding their questions in his mailbox and posting the answers on StarText for all to read. The result was the first subscriber-authored column, APPLETALK.

He followed that with another general interest column on computers, and yet another on the origin of words. But through the years, he became best known for a three-times-a-week opinion column simply called EJ. Ed had a wonderful knack for combining homespun humor and biting satire in a way that made him the online version of Will Rogers.

Later, Ed won the first annual StarText fiction competition with a bittersweet story about a robot that was too all-to-human, Rad Fourteen. Many other stories would follow, all crafted in that same witty, insightful style.

Ed's often confessed his worst fear was not getting email from his readers. He dreaded coming on StarText and seeing the reminder, "You have no new mail messages." A column that didn't produce at least one mail message left him down and depressed.

But who was this man, really? Extremely shy in person, Ed never attended a StarText subscriber meeting. We learned by way of friends he was 55 years old and had never married. By trade, he worked for a local commercial printer. The late Elston Brooks, Star-Telegram entertainment writer, provided another clue when he produced Ed's high school picture. Ed and Elston both attended Paschal High School in the fifties.

StarText, Ed would quickly tell anyone, had completely changed his life. But even Ed didn't know how much.

A few years after Ed began writing his columns he started getting letters from a woman reader, Patricia Chadwell. Pat, it turned out, was like Ed -- a woman in her fifties who had never married. She worked at the public library and did some writing of her own -- a geneaology column for the Star-Telegram called "Texas Kin."

Ed and Pat kept up quite a correspondence. Their letters became longer and more frequent. Something was happening to Ed that had never happened before. . .he was falling in love.
Friends say Ed and Pat cultivated their E-mail romance for six months before either could summon the courage to meet in person. But meet they finally did. In a manner of weeks, the confirmed, retiring bachelor and the studious librarian were married. StarText had another first, thanks to Ed and Pat.

Ed professed to one and all he had found a happiness he never believed possible. Although they still avoided the spotlight, Ed and Pat had a large, warm circle of friends on StarText.

After a decade of contributing his ideas and energy to a medium that had given him a chance to write and meet people and fall in love, one day, as usual, Ed sent in his latest edition of EJ. This time, he wasn't taking potshots at politicians, or decrying wasteful spending or poking fun at the latest trend. He was telling us he had just returned from his doctor, where he found out the spot on his lungs was cancer and he probably had only months to live.

Ed was able to look at death and face it in the same philosophical, somewhat irreverent way he faced life. He wasn't going to let down his readers. Ed vowed to continue writing his columns as long as his strength allowed, saying he would never mentioned his cancer again.

Ed's wit and sense of humor never left him. He wrote that his doctor pointed to his 40 years of smoking as the likely cause of his condition. "Without smoking," Ed wrote, "I would have died of aggrevation long ago."

When the columns quit coming, we knew the end must be near. Now we had to depend on his friends to keep us informed. But even his friends weren't aware of the other drama playing out behind Ed's illness.

Suddenly, and without warning, the news came that Pat Jackson had died after a long and quiet battle with diabetes. Less than 24 hours later, his hope and strength exhausted, Ed joined his beloved Pat in death.

It's been two years since we said goodbye to Ed and Pat. But their legacy remains alive. For many, Ed Jackson was StarText. Ed's collected columns and stories have a permanent place in our archives. Some of his works have just been published in booklet form by his friends. And money is being collected to purchase a brick in Ed and Pat's memory at the new Fort Worth Public Library.

If you look on the front of our blue User Guide, you'll notice our Starmadillo mascot is wearing a single star with the number "1125" on it. It was our way of honoring the memory of a true pioneer -- someone who loved StarText not for its technology but for its people. People who shared their hopes and their dreams, their happiness and their sorrows, through its electronic byways.