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LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Jackson’s genuine quality helped him become a broadcasting titan

Loran Smith

Loran Smith, of Athens, the long-time sideline radio voice of the Georgia Bulldogs, writes a regular column.

Soon after Keith became established with ABC, I learned that he was a native Georgian, which led to a search for his hometown. There was no easy access Internet in those days, but good fortune came about when he showed up at a meeting of the College Sports Information Directors Association one summer. Following an introduction, we agreed to meet later in the day for a libation and conversation, fortunately the first of many.

Over the years with summer jobs, Bulldog Club meetings and visiting with college friends, I have spent time in every one of Georgia’s 159 counties. My familiarity with the small towns in Georgia, as a result of this exposure, is not unabridged, but I think you could safely say it is fairly extensive. I thought I was familiar with most of the outposts and small communities in our state, but when Keith allowed that he was from Roopville, I had no idea where he grew up.

When he laughed, “near Carrollton,” I quickly grasped the place of his roots. With the passing of time, there were many conversations about his days in Carroll County and life down on the farm which caused such terms as, “Whoa Nellie,” to enter his broadcast lexicon.

This was a man who grew up walking about barefoot. He knew all about farm chores. The hard life he never complained about. You play the cards you are dealt, but with this broadcast titan, there was a wanderlust which needed satiating. He would listen to a battery-powered radio and was always in tune with the easy listening of WSB Radio.

He heard the house announcers sing out the call letters slogan during the day which brought about a classic circumstance on one of his early trips to Athens with ABC. I asked him to be a guest on the Georgia pregame show, which then took place on a hillside just off Field Street.

Before I could introduce him, he leaned into the microphone and said, “Welcome South Brother.” Then with a generous smile he added, “I’ve always wanted to do that.” He was old school, a traditionalist who became a world traveler, but it was the United States Marines which enabled him to get off the farm. Austerity prevailed, meagerness was in abundant supply. He knew that college was the remotest of possibilities, but he knew there was a way. At 16, he lied about is age and joined the Marines. Keith Jackson was one of millions of young American men who utilized the GI Bill to succeed in life.

After four years with the Marines, Keith returned home to make his next move — to Pullman, Washington, about as far from Roopville as the moon for those in his family. Invoking conjectural analysis, his settling in at Washington State may have arisen out of his wanting separation from the homestead. He admitted in a conversation on his deck one night in his home in Sherman Oaks that there wasn’t exactly an abundance of brotherly love between two of his uncles.

While listening to the broadcast of a high school game in Pullman one Friday night, Keith decided to go down to the station, introduce himself to the general manager with this critique, “The worst football broadcast I ever heard.” The GM told him if he thought he was such an expert he could call play-by- by of the next game. That is how Keith Jackson became a broadcaster.

The visits to his deck in Sherman Oaks and on my back porch emit warm memories that will endure. We often talked about cranking up a video recorder for his recollections, but he would always, say, “Next time,” as the bartender replenished our drinks.

Labor Day 1972, Clemson came to Athens for the opening of college football season on ABC-TV. The network sent an all-star cast. In addition to Keith and Frank Broyles, the color analyst, there were Jack Whitaker, Jim Lampley and a couple of network executives. I remember Whitaker, an excellent broadcast essayist, being taken by the “UGA campus environment.”

If you remember those days, the music scene had not exploded in Athens, restaurants were closed on Sunday, there was no liquor by the drink sales. It could have been an embarrassing situation. I went to coach Bill Hartman, chairman of the scholarship fund which had funds for public relations, and told him it was going to be a dull evening for our VIP guests.

I suggested that if he would underwrite the cost of a catered dinner, my wife, Myrna, and I would host it. As always, coach Hartman was most generous and a memorable party ensued. We included producers, directors and a host of ABC personnel. Those network executives were blown away.

After the meal, we all crammed onto our back porch as the story telling began. It seemed to go on until the late hours. Those network folk can party as hard as they work. Like turning off a faucet, Keith eventually stood up and signaled for his driver. The memorable party was over. As the evening ended, Keith whispered, “Friend, this meant a lot to our company, and I appreciate it.”

On Thursday before the game when I had driven over to the Atlanta Airport to pick him up for the weekend, he got off the first class cabin (again, times were different), lugging a box. He had taped a handle onto the container. Curious but not saying anything, I wondered why it was so heavy. When he got out of his car at the motel, he winked and said, as he pointed to the box, “This is a little something for you.” When the box was opened, it was a case of “Silver Oak” wine.

We honored him with a citation and a proclamation in halftime ceremonies, but he was overwhelmed when we invited his mother and stepfather to join us for the weekend.

My friendship with Keith Jackson was an enriching experience. I gloried in the fact that he grew up in a familiar environment — austere and limited — but rose to the top of a profession he never intended to pursue. There was a special quality that Keith had which sets the titans of any profession apart — genuineness. Keith Jackson was as genuine as the brogans he wore growing up in Roopville. Not all successful and accomplished people have that quality.