A retired Mississippi State University professor fills multiple books with stories and essays about fishing, hunting and his love of the outdoors.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Donald Jackson remembers well the first theme he wrote in college. It was for his freshman English class which met at 7:30 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. An Arkansas native, Jackson’s theme was titled “Frog Gigging Arkansas Style,” and it was returned with a grade and a comment — A, Nicely Done. The professor, suspicious of the high quality of this freshman’s first effort, let him know he’d be paying particularly close attention to his endeavors until the end of the semester.
“When the semester was ending, he asked me to stay after class,” Jackson said. “He apologized and acknowledged I could write.”
Dr. Donald Jackson is now 71 and is the Sharp Distinguished Professor of Fisheries (Emeritus) at Mississippi State University. Though retired for nine years, he continues to teach one course each fall semester. Depending on the needs of the fisheries department, Jackson might teach Fisheries Management, Limnology (aquatic ecology) or Ichthyology (fish biology).
“In Fisheries Management, I teach my students to drive a boat, back up a trailer, build a trotline, scull with one hand and fish a fly rod with the other, clean fish, even put on a fish fry,” Jackson said.
He’s one of those educators who firmly believes it’s OK to care about one’s students.
“I start all my lectures with a poem — perhaps by a favorite poet or sometimes one of my own,” he said. “I don’t have many absentees.”
He’s also been known to climb atop his desk and invite students to follow suit — a la “Dead Poets Society” — to gain a different perspective.
“I do that,” he said, smiling. “We might have to help each other up and down, but it’s a team effort.”
Jackson has continued to write since those stellar college freshman themes; he has even more time in retirement to write his stories. Truth is, it would be a shame if he didn’t keep a record of his compelling life’s journey.
He was born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, to an elementary school teacher mom and an agronomist/minister dad who tended both soil and souls. His family spent time in Kentucky when his dad attended seminary and returned to Arkansas when he was 10. Later, they moved to Huntsville, Alabama, but Jackson returned to Arkansas, where he’d fallen in love with all things north Arkansas. He couldn’t stay out of the woods or the waters. He enrolled at the University of Arkansas and eventually received his bachelor’s degree in zoology and his master’s in zoology/limnology.
“I was pretty much a counter-culturist interested in moon dances with my long hair,” Jackson said. “I lived in a van, parked on a riverbank and went to school. Wherever I was, that was home.”
An Eagle Scout, he worked for the Boy Scouts in central Arkansas and as a head resident/counselor at UA. Still, Jackson had a persistent case of wanderlust and on a whim, he applied to the Peace Corps.
“On Thanksgiving night in 1976, I had a phone call from Washington, D.C., letting me know they’d received my application,” Jackson said. “The man asked if I spoke Bahasa Malaysia and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ He asked when I could go, and I told him the middle of next week. He said I’d have to wait until March.
“I didn’t even know where Malaysia was, except somewhere in Southeast Asia, and I wanted to be there. I had to teach classes in the language, so I had three months to learn or go home.”
Jackson had great success in learning to speak Bahasa Malaysia, in fact, he found it easier to speak than English.
“I have always been terrible in spelling, but I never misspelled a word in Bahasa,” he said. “I tell people I speak English, Spanish, Bahasa Malaysia and Southern.”
Two years in the Peace Corps was, of course, quite an education — Jackson learned what it was like to have an M16 under his chin and make a human chain to go into the South China Sea to rescue people. He came out of the Peace Corps and entered Lexington Theological Seminary, as had his father. He served as pastor of New Liberty Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) while in seminary.
“I had my little flock of about 60 people, mostly farmers,” Jackson said. “I woke one morning and heard the clear message, ‘Feed my sheep.’ I thought I was.”
The message continued to needle the young seminarian until he decided to leave seminary. He was asked if it was because it was too tough. His answer? “No. It’s too wonderful.”
At the age of 30, he went home to his parents to discern his next steps. He ended up working on his doctoral studies, receiving his Ph.D. in fisheries management from Auburn University. During his two and a half years at Auburn, Jackson met Viodelda (Vi), the woman who would become his wife and mother to their two sons and a daughter.
“Without her, I would likely be a muskrat trapper in Louisiana,” Jackson said, laughing.
In 1986, after a year as a visiting professor at the University of Alaska, he interviewed with and accepted a position as a faculty member at Mississippi State University. His work in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture has earned Jackson numerous awards and afforded him opportunities to work on international fisheries assignments in Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America the Caribbean and Europe. He spent a month alone in the Central Australian desert. From every assignment, every country, every experience Jackson kept bits and pieces of stories in his memory and a list of titles in his head. As a busy young professor, he found little time to put stories and titles together on paper. But he discovered February often offered some “slack time.” And he took advantage.
“I’d write a story during February, in a day or a day and a half,” he said. “I’d set it aside for a week, then rewrite. In another week, I’d make minor adjustments and then quit. It loses spirit when it’s overworked.”
His first book of short stories/essays was published by The Strode Publishers in Huntsville, Alabama, before he came to Mississippi. In 2005, the fisherman/hunter realized he had a file that was full of stories.
“I cast around different venues for publishers, and University Press nibbled a little,” he said. “We went back and forth, and in 2006, ‘Tracks’ was published and was a pretty good seller.”
A lot of his February-written stories were published in 2012 in “Wilder Ways, “Deeper Currents” in 2016, and in 2021, “A Sportsman’s Journey,” all published by University Press. Jackson’s son, Robert, an artist and landscape architect, did the cover of “Wilder Ways” and “A Sportsman’s Journey,” and he illustrated every chapter of “Wilder Ways.” Jackson has completed 13 stories/essays for his next book, which he said is different, but still has outdoor elements.
In his most recent book, “A Sportsman’s Journey,” Jackson writes with the flair of a seasoned wordsmith, the wonder of a passionate outdoorsman, the wisdom of a wisened philosopher and the heart of a man who loves his family and his life.
He still enjoys the occasional hunt and appreciates the contemplative nature of fishing. Both sons, Robert and David, an Air Force pilot, like to fish. Daughter Anna, a biologist, can take or leave fishing, but, according to her father, “she’s the best boat driver.” Jackson enjoys fishing with others, but he also relishes the peace to be found fishing alone.
“As I have aged, I have shifted into a different relationship with hunting and fishing,” he said. “I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m in touch with the world around me. I still shoot, but I always shoot with reverence.
“Reverence for life makes me a better hunter and fisherman.”