He made it to the top, then came back to uplift others. Pensacola mourns Rodney Jackson

·6 min read

His was the type of story that one day — at the end of their lives — many people may dream of having told about them.

Rodney Jackson, of Pensacola, was a small town kid who made good — one who came from humble means, worked hard and landed a well-paying job in the big city.

But Jackson, who died unexpectedly this week at age of 55, was not satisfied with measuring his successes in dollars and cents.

Last year, he left his job as a senior loan officer in Dallas and came back to Pensacola to start a new career at the nonprofit Studer Community Institute. He made the move — and took a big pay cut — because he wanted to teach underserved entrepreneurs in the community he grew up in how to grow their businesses and thrive like he did.

Rodney Jackson and his wife, Patricia, are pictured in this photo. Rodney Jackson was the director of business engagement at the Studer Community Institute.
Rodney Jackson and his wife, Patricia, are pictured in this photo. Rodney Jackson was the director of business engagement at the Studer Community Institute.

"You just have to know Rodney. That was always his passion — to help people, to help the community," said his wife, Patricia.

His goal was to lift up minority-owned businesses in Pensacola, and when he passed away Tuesday, the Escambia County business world lost an invaluable member, according to his peers.

In a little less than a year, Jackson assisted approximately 60 small business owners to acquire capital and grow their local enterprises.

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"He's a banker by trade. He sat behind a desk, he did documents, but when he was in Pensacola, he was out in the community. He was talking to people. He was on boards," Patricia Jackson said. "He wasn't doing that in Dallas. He was just, you know, being a banker."

Jackson died after eating raw oysters contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus. He is survived by his wife and five children.

A man from Pensacola

After growing up and graduating from high school in Pensacola, Jackson spent eight years in the U.S. Air Force as an aircraft scheduler and met his wife, a New York native, while stationed in Dover, Delaware.

Jackson later earned two bachelor's degrees, one in accounting and the second in business, from Delaware State College while serving as a reservist.

"He loves the military. That's where we met, and he was always that guy — uniforms starched and pressed. He built his life on that," his wife said. "And, he loved his family."

After their wedding, the couple moved to Pensacola and raised their family here for the next 23 years. Jackson served as a loan officer and banker for various financial institutions.

Patricia and Rodney Jackson are pictured in this photo. Rodney Jackson was the director of business engagement at the Studer Community Institute.
Patricia and Rodney Jackson are pictured in this photo. Rodney Jackson was the director of business engagement at the Studer Community Institute.

He helped oversee the construction of Community Maritime Park as one of the original board members for Community Maritime Park Associates Inc.

In 2013, he got an offer to work at a Texas bank and jumped at the opportunity.

Although he left his hometown, his mind frequently drifted back to Escambia County.

"That is how Rodney was. He would read the Pensacola News Journal. As long as I knew him, he's always read through everything that was going on in Pensacola," his wife said. "And he was always saying, 'We need some things need to be to be done in Pensacola.'"

It took a longtime friend to bring him home.

Homecoming

SCI founder Quint Studer personally knew Jackson and was aware of his glowing business reputation. He decided to offer him a reason to come back to the area.

A big part of SCI is helping small businesses, and according to SCI, a recent study found that fewer than 3% of businesses in Escambia County are minority-owned.

During the pandemic, Studer decided he wanted to expand SCI's reach by placing a particular emphasis on providing minority business owners with training and resources to grow their businesses.

One day, he was discussing his idea with Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May.

"I said, 'I wish we had somebody that could help us really focus on — we've got staff right now that work with small businesses — but somebody that really had an particular experience helping small businesses and particularly Black or minority-owned businesses,'" Studer recalled.

May suggested that Studer hire Jackson, but Studer doubted he could ever attract Jackson back to Pensacola.

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"The issue, truly, was what we could pay him," Studer said. "SCI is a not for profit, and it wasn't close to what he was making in Dallas."

But despite the money, Jackson took the opportunity to help people and started as SCI's director of business engagement in August 2021.

"Pay cut wasn't even the words for it. It was like, OK, deep breath," Patricia Jackson said, in a half-joking tone. "But we knew that it was something we had to do, and we were wiling to make the sacrifice."

Success

Acting like a kind of financial small business counselor, Jackson joined local organizations like Bridging the Gap to meet and interact with local businesses owners, encouraging them to learn best business practices and skillset through SCI.

"It was amazing how more minority owned businesses started reaching out," Studer said. "Because I think there was a certain trust level with Rodney — a sort of reputation level.

"It's just so sad. First, the loss is sad no matter what job Rodney had. But it's sad because he really had built people up. He was really hitting his stride."

Rodney Jackson
Rodney Jackson

Jackson taught business owners about the importance of taking on debt as a means to grow their businesses and helped guide them through the processes of acquiring commercial loans.

"He was just uniquely qualified person for the role," said SCI President Rachael Gillette, later adding, "You can tell one of his other dreams would be to bring a Black-owned bank into the community."

Jackson reached out to Common Wealth National Bank of Mobile, Alabama, one of the nation's few minority owned banks, to help introduce the banks' CEO and loan officers to Pensacola business owners and the potential of their businesses.

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"Mr. Jackson understood both sides of the table," said Bo White, a loan officer for Common Wealth National Bank of Mobile. "He was a former commercial lender. So, he understood it from my standpoint. "And he's had a lot of opportunities to work with small business owners, so he was able to take their hand and help them get prepared for lending opportunities."

White said Jackson had the ability to be like an advisor for both the bank and the business owners.

"I've known him for such a short time. He's had a huge impact on me, not just businesswise but personally," White said. "He's been where I want to be. He's a commercial lender who's had decades worth of experience and then he came back to continue a goal and life work. I looked at him as a mentor. I told him that."

Jackson's unexpected death shocked not only his family but also the people he worked with at SCI.

"We're all — I guess the word is — devastated," Studer said. "We're bringing in a therapist to talk to the staff (Thursday). They're just absolutely beyond themselves with sadness."

Colin Warren-Hicks can be reached at colinwarrenhicks@pnj.com or 850-435-8680.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Rodney Jackson, Pensacola minority business mentor, passed away