Monday, February 20, 2006

Larry Jackson

I have written often of my favorite barbeque restaurant, Leatha’s, in Hattiesburg.

It is one of the most unique restaurants on the planet. Not because the barbeque ribs are fall-of-the-bone tender, the sauce is sweet and inimitable, or the beef brisket is smoked to the core, but because of the people. So many times the human element is taken for granted in the restaurant business.

Leatha’s is a family-run restaurant. Mrs. Leatha is always there. Her daughters Bonnie, Carolyn, and Myrtis are there, too. They, along with dozens of grandchildren, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins are what make Leatha’s restaurant great.

They all work with one singular purpose: To serve the finest barbeque in the South. Many restaurants use the term ‘family” in their name. Leatha’s restaurant practices what it preaches.

That is why it is so hard to write today’s column. The family at Leatha’s has suffered a massive loss. Larry Jackson passed away last week.

If you had ever visited Leatha’s, you knew Larry. He was Mrs. Leatha’s youngest child. He greeted people when they walked in the door and sang to them at each table. He had done this for most of his 43 years.

Actually, Larry had grown into somewhat of a celebrity. Not only did he sing for those who visited the restaurant and at local talent shows, he was a regular guest on the nationally syndicated Steve and D.C. radio show.

Larry was my friend.

Larry was developmentally disabled. He was a special person, but I don’t mean “special” in the way that some use the term “special.” Larry was special because he touched so many lives and gave them joy.

One can tell a lot about a family by watching them interact when they think no one is looking. I remember sitting in Leatha’s one evening waiting for a carry-out order. Larry was having a disagreement with his two sisters Bonnie and Carolyn. The dispute was over one of his homemade CDs. Larry was insisting that there were three songs on the CD. The sisters maintained that there was only one. There was nothing special in the words they were using; it was the tone of the give and take. Even in disagreement, there was the deepest of love in the words.

I purchased the CD as I always did when Larry had something to sell. On the way home I popped it into the CD player. It was Larry singing one of his favorite songs, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (complete with the Vincent Price narration). It was the same song on the CD three times.

Larry Jackson was the most passionate human being I have ever known. His singing might have been off key now and then. He might have missed a lyric or a note, or both. But he was passionate about it. He gave 100% no matter what anyone thought and everyone within earshot couldn’t help but celebrate his passion. I learned a lot from Larry.

I imagine that some people asked Larry to sing to get a laugh at his expense. Ultimately, the joke was on them. Larry loved to sing. It was his passion. He didn’t care if you liked it or not.

There is a huge difference between making people laugh and making people happy. Comedians make people laugh. Larry Jackson made people happy.

Last year he was asked to sing the national anthem at an intra-fraternity football game at the University of Southern Mississippi. He invited me and I brought my camera. It was a proud moment for Larry. He was on the 50-yard line of M.M. Roberts stadium singing to all in attendance. I had planned to have the photo framed one day to present to Larry. I assumed there would be plenty of time. I was wrong.

Mrs. Leatha could have done what many mothers do in her situation and sent Larry to a home for the developmentally disabled. Not Leatha. She celebrated what God made Larry and put him to work sharing that blessing. When one celebrates what God has made instead of hiding or being embarrassed, they become truly blessed. Letha celebrated Larry and Larry became a celebrity.

Leatha did what Jesus would have done. In biblical times the marginalized and disadvantaged citizens were left outside of the city gates. One of the first things Jesus did when arriving in a town was to lift those people up and have them walk into the city with him. Larry certainly would have walked with Jesus, and he would have been singing all of the way.

Larry was my friend. I miss him already.

A scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi Foundation has been established in the name of Larry Jackson. I encourage everyone who feels the urge to give a little to honor Larry.

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