‘Heart as big as a school bus’: Dot Jackson, former Observer columnist and novelist, dies

For almost 15 years, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Dot Jackson’s columns in the Charlotte Observer were so popular that, if she happened to be in a hurry, she’d grab a mask before entering the grocery store in hopes of eluding her legions of fans.

A longtime resident of Six Mile, S.C., in Pickens County, and co-founder and on-site manager of the Birchwood Center for the Arts and Folklife during the past decade, Jackson died Sunday at her daughter Katharine Gavenus’s home in Newland. She was 84.

Her heart always longed for the South Carolina mountains, where generations of ancestors – Mauldins, Garvins and Boggses – had lived, and it was there she found both career and calling.

[READ MORE: A 1982 column by Dot Jackson. And this 2006 profile of Jackson and her work in which she calls herself “a buxom cadaver,” “crazy as a loon,” “broke as a haint.”]

Born Dorothea Mauldin in Miami on Aug. 10, 1932, she was raised in Florida, and studied music and dance at the University of Miami before heading back to her beloved South Carolina Upcountry.

After a stint in Utah, where her husband and childhood sweetheart, Willie Jackson, was finishing his graduate work, the Jacksons moved to Charlotte in 1962 with three children. She taught school and dance and also sold girdles in the basement of Belk on North Tryon before the Observer hired her in 1967 as a proofreader.

Soon, the legendary columnist Kays Gary persuaded Jackson to fill his space while he was on vacation. She covered everything from murder trials to city hall to snake-handling prayer meetings, one eye always out for the underdog and one ear cocked for a winsome way with words.

In the mid-1970s, a series of Jackson’s columns kept the New River in Ashe County from being dammed. She wrote about the residents’ efforts to save their historic river, and in 1976, the New won federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River.

Her columns often poked fun at herself, her housekeeping, and her mother, who tried to hold onto her teeth when she laughed. Some of her most poignant writing drew on her love of the mountains. Jackson took her readers to Dirty Ankle, Rocky Bottom, Deep Creek. She showed them birch forests, blackberry brambles and lilacs in bud.

With former Observer staffer Frye Gaillard, Jackson reported for months in the early 1980s on the Catawba River. Their stories culminated in a 1983 book, “The Catawba River,” with photographs by Don Sturkey (Gardner-Webb College Press).

Gaillard recalls reporting with Jackson: “At times, I felt like a colorless appendage as she charmed her way into the homes and hearts of people who lived and worked near the river, from the mountains of North Carolina to the low country of South Carolina.

“Dot had a gift for making it clear that she valued their stories and would treat them with tender, loving care. She had a heart the size of a school bus, and the people she interviewed all knew it.”

“Dot’s family life was so complicated,” says longtime friend and former Observer colleague Pat Borden Gubbins. “I think the paper was her refuge.”

But Jackson and Observer editors came to an impasse over job responsibilities in 1982, and Jackson was fired. (Jackson later told former Observer staffer Jeri Fischer Krentz that the dispute was partly her fault.) Outraged readers filled one Observer Forum.

“I hate to see Dot Jackson go because she writes like I talk,” wrote one reader, “and she makes her people sound like people I know. Over the years, she has come to seem like another dear next-door neighbor. May you have dust under your refrigerator, sir!”

With a collapsing marriage, Jackson sold her house on Willow Oak Road, moved to South Carolina and hired on at the Greenville (S.C.) News-Piedmont and later the Easley Progress.

“Dot could get into some of the most complex fixes of anybody I ever knew,” said long-time friend and former Observer colleague Jerry Bledsoe. “But she always wriggled out giggling. I always hoped somebody would record Dot’s giggle and post it online so anybody in need of heartening could click and find the relief and joy that giggle gave to so many.”

Once in a while, Jackson’s giggle failed even her.

In 1989, her middle child, Tom Jackson, died while a student at Western Carolina University. Ten months later, a granddaughter died.

It was time for a new direction.

In 2000, Jackson and three friends, all board members of the S.C. Academy of Authors, began searching for a possible retreat, a gathering place for writers and artists to work and talk about their craft.

The group settled on a few overgrown acres with a dilapidated 200-year-old house and a view of Table Rock Mountain. Jackson had known the spot since childhood. She moved into a trailer on the premises and began writing grant proposals to restore the house and establish the Birchwood Center, which at Jackson’s death had long been showcasing the region’s writers at its annual Book and Author Fair.

During her Observer years, Jackson had begun a novel that, after many incarnations, was selected as the 2006 winner of the Novello Prize, by the Novello Festival Press of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library. “Refuge,” set in 1929, is the story of Charleston’s Mary Seneca Steele and her flight to freedom, family and love in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It won the 2006 Weatherford Award and the Appalachian Book of the Year Award. In 2008, John F. Blair of Winston-Salem brought out “Refuge” in paperback.

Award-winning Appalachian State novelist Ron Rash called Jackson’s novel “a beautifully rendered portrait of a lost time and place.”

That place was always working its way into Jackson’s prose.

In 1982, about a year before she left the Observer, Jackson wrote about the funeral of a cousin in Central, S.C.

“We come ... from all those far-flung places where we live and sometimes don’t belong. Whoever we are, in those other lives, we are Totsie and Teeny and Red and Bud and Bitsy, when we fall upon each other’s necks in consolation.”

And as they gathered in the cemetery, she noted: “One cannot walk but to walk upon our folks. Nature is nearly always kind to us, though we tend to die in winter.”

And she concludes:

“And it was warm for us, this time, a beautiful false spring, rustling in the dry leaves of the church yard. The lilac bushes on Bird’s grave were showing clumps of tiny purple buds.

“Up the road toward Six Mile, the pastures greened on that old land where Aunt Bird and her daughters had been raised. The surface things change. Old houses burn and crumble; new ones rise, sometimes in designs that look freakish (to me) on that landscape…”

“But we do not live with that; we live with what it used to be. It is our land, though we come to it only to put another of us down.”