CARBONDALE — John Jackson never set out to be a historian of SIU Carbondale.
He arrived at SIUC in 1969, the year the university turned 100, as a newly minted doctor of political science. He became known for his books on presidential elections and the political polling he runs for the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.
But 50 years into his SIUC career, a pesky thing Jackson calls “participant observation” is catching up with him.
At this point, no one on campus has seen more SIUC history than Jackson has. He’s been a professor, a dean and a chancellor. He has been a critic of university decisions, and he has been protested against for decisions he made in leadership roles.
Plus, for all his talents, Jackson is really bad at being retired. Officially, he is, but he still shows up to work at 7:30 every morning, and he still hasn’t learned to play golf.
All that made Jackson the natural choice to take the lead when it came time to reflect on SIUC’s 150th anniversary with a commemorative book.
And the 78-year-old professor had plenty of help, he’s quick to acknowledge, from a mix of “people who’ve been here a while, and people who’ve been here forever.”
Recently-retired SIUC photographer Steve Buhman dug up and digitized hundreds of photos. Vanessa Sneed, of the chancellor’s office, added research and photo captions.
Leaders of units across SIU, from the office of the president, to SIUC’s graduate education, to the Physical Plant — which oversees SIUC’s heating and cooling, clocks, streetlights and fire alarms — all chipped in with chapters on their histories.
“I never saw myself writing part of a book, and it was daunting,” said Lori Stettler, who oversees student affairs on campus. “But John is a taskmaster and he’s the sweetest, kindest man you’d ever want to work with.”
Combing through decades of growth and change in housing, recreation and student health, Stettler said she was reminded of the spirit of her job.
“We’re talking about the out-of-classroom experience that students had on our campus,” Stettler said, from the turbulence of the ‘60s and ‘70s, to the growth of the student center and the Rec into world-class facilities, thanks to student support and solidarity.
“This reminded me that everything we do is in service of the students, and it's all personal,” Stettler said. “It’s about relationships.”
Jackson wrote the book’s first and last chapters, and edited the rest, carefully checking every fact, date and photo.
The result is more than a coffee table book.
"Southern Illinois University at 150 Years: Growth, Accomplishments, and Challenges” has over 300 SIUC photos, of athletes, dignitaries, students and teachers.
But it’s not some “chamber of commerce puff piece,” Jackson said.
The book takes an objective look at the challenges the university has overcome and those it faces — from boosting enrollment to currying favor with Springfield and Chicago politicians who write state budgets from hundreds of miles away.
“SIU at 150” gives special focus to the last 50 years of SIU, all of which Jackson lived. What came before was already covered extensively in the university’s 50th, 75th and 100th anniversary history books, he said.
Those hefty old things are piled up at the back of Jackson’s office, underneath thousands of pages of drafts of the new book. Jackson read all three histories, and spent two and a half years putting together their successor.
When he started at SIUC in 1969, the university was emerging from a major transformation; under President Delyte Morris, it had grown in enrollment from about 3,000 to 20,000 students.
SIUC was also gripped by demonstrations, marches, and a student strike, in protest of the Vietnam War. Besides teaching, Jackson was assigned to nighttime guard duty, keeping watch over the building that is now the SIUC College of Business.
“I was a brand new professor assigned to keep the kids from, they feared, burning the place down,” Jackson said. Old Main, the university’s oldest structure, burned in June of that year, in a suspected arson.
In its most recent 50 years, SIUC has translated the growth brought by Morris and the GI Bill into an international footprint, Jackson said.
In 1947, Saad Jabr, from Iraq, enrolled at SIU Carbondale as a freshman. He would become the first international student to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
By the early 1990s, the university had a thriving satellite campus in Nakajo, Japan, that brought hundreds of students to Carbondale.
“At one point we had more international enrollment than the University of Illinois,” Jackson said. “It has become one of the richest parts of our tradition.”
Jackson traveled around the world, including to Iraq in 2009, helping to build those international connections.
More recently, he said, the university has been shaken by a budget roller-coaster, with steady declines in state funding beginning in the early 2000s, and culminating with the 2015 to 2017 budget impasse.
“It has conditioned and hampered everything else we’ve tried to do,” Jackson said. But it has not defined SIU.
“We’ve had disastrous numbers before, plenty of setbacks and we’ve prevailed,” Jackson said. “We have survived in trying circumstances, and we’ll still be here in 2069.”
The book is available through the SIU University Press, which published it, for $40. It will be distributed through SIU Alumni Association chapters around the country and through local bookstores, like 710, in Carbondale, Jackson said.
A group of Japanese visitors, invited through Marion’s continuing sister city relationship with Kanie, Japan, will receive copies of the book when they visit Southern Illinois and meet Jackson, two weeks from now. The book will also be presented in Springfield, home to the SIU School of Medicine, soon.
Jackson isn’t mad that he was tapped for the book, even though it has added hundreds of hours of work to his so-called retirement.
“The good part is, I was there and I had a seat at the table for much of this stuff. I lived through it all and have a decent memory of most of it. That bad part, I think everyone would agree, is that it gives you certain biases,” Jackson said.
And his bias is pro-SIU, right?
“Well, yeah,” Jackson said. ”This is an amazing place.”