ST. PETERSBURG — They called him Mailman Gene.
For 33 years, Ernest Eugene Jackson delivered mail in St. Petersburg — the first several years on a bicycle. He handed out candy to children and looked over for the elderly like a shepherd.
"Every day it was the highlight of his day," said Dontell Green, Mr. Jackson's grandson. "He would give out candy or just tell them, 'Just go on home now, I don't have nothing for y'all today.' "
Even dogs loved Mailman Gene. One regularly jumped the fence just to tag along.
He seized the job with both hands and hung on, earning a solid living at a time when society accepted segregation. He also taught his eight children the value of hard work.
Mr. Jackson, one of the city's first black letter carriers, died Dec. 10. He was 84.
"St. Petersburg has lost a piece of its history," said Green.
Mr. Jackson graduated from Gibbs High School and fought in the Navy during World War II. He was hired by the post office in 1950, one of six letter carriers who were black. He rode the streets of Jordan Park on a balloon-tire bicycle, balancing bulging saddlebags. His route would expand farther south, all the way to Pinellas Point.
"He would talk about how rough it was and how hard it was back then being black," said Green, 34. "He never dwelled on the bad things he had to go through in life."
He bought a house on 19th Street S — until then an area inhabited almost exclusively by white residents. Soon those neighbors were coming over to the Jacksons' for dinner.
Mr. Jackson did not spare the rod on his eight children. "As soon as he raised his voice or he would hit that coffee table with his hand, you knew that enough was enough," Green said.
He rose at 4 a.m. on work days. By 6 a.m. he had read the paper and was out the door. He called residents on his route "my people" and looked on them with a protective eye. When mail piled up in an elderly woman's box, he pounded on the door and looked through a window. The woman, it turns out, had fallen two days earlier and could not get to a phone.
"She survived and was fine," Mr. Jackson told the St. Petersburg Times in 1995. "But sometimes they don't survive, and that hurts a mailman's heart."
Residents repaid him with holiday fruitcakes, gift baskets and cash.
At night he laid on the couch and "let the TV watch him," as his wife, Leola, put it. He would fall asleep, then totter off to bed hours later.
They met in the early 1970s, a year or two after Mr. Jackson's first wife, Altamese, died of cancer and Leola happened to move onto Seventh Avenue S — his route.
"I asked my aunt, 'Why does it take that mailman so long to come down that block and come back up the road?' " said Leola Jackson, 77.
"She said, 'He's just running his mouth.' "
At her door, Mailman Gene was a flirt. "He said, 'I'm not giving you any mail from any man. You gonna be my girlfriend,' " Leola recalled. "Not knowing it was actually going to happen."
They married in 1975. He taught her how to deal with dogs.
"I was afraid of dogs," Leola said. "He would say, 'Just be calm. Dogs know when you are afraid.' "
Once, she said, a heretofore vicious dog got loose when Mr. Jackson was approaching the owner's front door. As the owner watched in horror, "He just walked up, talked to the dog and patted him on his head," she said. "The dog's owner was so shocked."
Mr. Jackson retired in 1983. He turned a washing machine into a backyard smoker, which sat right next to his okra and collard plants. Mr. Jackson fed any and all; he insisted on giving children an extra take-home plate.
"If you were ever hungry, you knew where to go," said Donna McKinney, Mr. Jackson's daughter.
Mr. Jackson moved to a nursing home about five years ago. While visiting him there a year or two ago, Green asked his grandfather how he had survived segregation, suffered losses and raised eight children.
"He said, 'You know what? You just never give up. You keep fighting.' "
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.