PINELLAS PARK — When Bill Jackson was a teen, he and three other boys made a long, perilous trek to the floor of the Grand Canyon with nothing — no canteens, backpacks or first-aid kits.
The group had to retrieve old whiskey bottles from the Colorado River to collect enough water for the hot, strenuous hike back out.
That's where Jackson's son, Darry, traces his father's passion for the outdoors that eventually created his iconic “adventure” store in Pinellas Park, known for its wide selection of high-end camping gear, scuba training and even an indoor ski slope.
Jackson, 98, died early Wednesday following a fall earlier this month that injured his neck. Two days ago, he was still asking his son to take him to his namesake store, Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure, at 9501 U.S. 19.
He was known affectionately as Mr. J to the many current and past employees who found a home in the family business he started in the 1950s.
As big-box stores grew with mass-marketing and bulk discounts, Jackson and family kept their focus on quality equipment and educating customers on outdoor sports rather than going for the quick sale.
“He liked for people to learn about the outdoors and have fun and be safe doing it,” Darry Jackson said.
The goal, carried out by his employees, wasn't so much to make big money as to generate excitement.
“We have no idea how to close sales, but through our enthusiasm, we make things work,” Jackson said.
Actually, the elder Jackson never meant to get into the sporting goods business. He meant to be a builder.
Born in Atlanta, Jackson found his way to the Tampa Bay area after serving in the Air Force during World War II.
At MacDill Air Force Base, he met and married Mrs. J, Harriet Rogers. He came out of the service with 500 pounds of rat poison and one ton of bleach acquired at an army surplus auction.
After accumulating a garage full of army blankets, parachutes, tents and other supplies, the Jacksons moved their stock into their first store at Fourth Street and 11th Avenue South in St. Petersburg.
The constant need to move and expand eventually led them to a 5-acre site where Jackson fulfilled a dream to build a store big enough to house training areas for the merchandise being sold.
The couple and their two sons, Doug and Darry, have run the store as a family since it opened in 1976.
The 38,000-square-foot store gained notoriety for not taking American Express when a Visa television commercial showed off its indoor scuba training pool and continuously moving inclined deck that simulates snow skiing.
Longtime employees, some of whom left higher-paying work to join the family, remember an honest businessman who remained a continous presence even into old age.
“Six days a week from open to close, not coming in late, not leaving early,” senior manager Michael Love said.
Though Jackson didn't set out to be a businessman, Darry Jackson says his father ended up creating something more than a business.
“It's hard to explain, but to us it's like a family member. It's our life,” he said.
A celebration of Jackson's life is scheduled for Feb. 23 at the store.