Susan Jackson, fervent volunteer

Her son said Susan Jackson, with husband James in 1986, tried to make the world, and especially Boston, a better place. Her son said Susan Jackson, with husband James in 1986, tried to make the world, and especially Boston, a better place.
By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / February 23, 2011

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When she was honored by The College Club of Boston in 1994 for four decades of volunteering for nonprofit organizations that touched many lives around Boston, Susan Jackson ended her response with a light verse.

In summary, if you ask me, I’ll answer loud and clear, It really is great fun to be A multi-volunteer.

She was the ultimate volunteer, friends said, who drew others into the cause and stayed out of the limelight herself.

Mrs. Jackson did outreach work for a range of organizations, including the Boston Children’s Museum, Franklin Park Zoo, several Boston hospitals, First Night, the Revels, and the International Institute of Boston.

Mrs. Jackson, who also volunteered for many groups concerned with the education and welfare of children, died in her sleep Jan. 1 at the home of her daughter Margaret, in Pomfret, Vt. She was 92.

Mrs. Jackson had lived in Brookline since 1949 and moved to her daughter’s home two years ago.

“Susan was an enthusiast,’’ said Michael Spock, former director of the Boston Children’s Museum, which Mrs. Jackson joined in 1967. “She was civic-minded and had a sense of social commitment. She was a force.’’

She became a trustee of the museum and a key player in its move from Jamaica Plain to Fort Point Channel.

“Susan didn’t just lend her name,’’ said Spock, who directed the museum from 1962 to 1985. “She was in synch with how we shaped our mission. She had a sense of social commitment and a lot of ideas.’’

In the 1980s, Mrs. Jackson was a board member of Revels Inc., a nonprofit arts organization based in Watertown that presents popular seasonal celebrations.

Former director Gayle Rich recalled how Mrs. Jackson “drove around in a big old station wagon with its windows plastered with nonprofits’ stickers.’’

“Susan was never self-aggrandizing, very modest, and a tireless worker,’’ she said.

Mrs. Jackson’s daughter said her mother was “a very positive person and didn’t want to focus on herself.’’

“Her eyes were sort of like a bird’s, very bright,’’ Margaret Jackson said. “She would see the best in a person and bring that out.’’

Her daughter said that while Mrs. Jackson lived with her, she was often in pain but did not complain. “She would get up in the morning and say, ‘What are we going to do today?’ ’’

Born Susan Gardner Miller in New York City to Rutger Bleecker and Dorothy Forster Miller, Mrs. Jackson graduated from Brearley School in New York and from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1940 with a major in biology.

In accepting the College Club award, she described her career before she became “a full-time volunteer.’’

“I did work as a professional for seven years,’’ she said, “two as an elementary school teacher, and five as a research laboratory technician’’ in chemistry at Harvard Medical School.

She also paid tribute to “a supportive husband.’’

She and James Higginson Jackson, who would become a physician, met in Boston in 1940, married in 1946, and settled in Brookline three years later. Dr. Jackson died in 2004.

In 1958, two of Mrs. Jackson’s daughters, ages 4 and 7, died in a car accident in which she was driving. The loss intensified her concern for the education and welfare of people, said her son, James Edward of Haslett, Mich.

“In a way,’’ he said, “it seemed she was trying to live three people’s lives. After the accident, it seemed her work outside the family was largely dedicated to efforts to make the world, Boston in particular, a better place, especially for children.’’

One of her largest contributions to Boston came when she was president of the board of directors at the Boston Children’s Museum. In the late 1970s, she helped shepherd it through the move from Jamaica Plain to the edge of the harbor in Boston, where it became a world-class museum. She remained an honorary trustee to the end of her life.

David Burnham of Cohasset, a former president of the museum board, described Mrs. Jackson as “a tremendous advocate for the community and diversity [who] in many ways set the tone for the museum’s outreach. She felt it very important for the museum to increase its outreach to empower children through hands-on learning.’’

Until she became too frail, Mrs. Jackson attended events for the Franklin Park Zoo, with which she had been involved for 40 years.

John J. Linehan, the zoo’s president, said Mrs. Jackson worked with the zoo’s educational program and brought in schools and children’s groups.

“She never just focused on animals but on animals and people together and how, in our ecosystem, we rely on each other,’’ he said. “She was truly a wonderful human being who worked so hard to make the world a better place.’’

In more recent years, Mrs. Jackson became involved with Plimoth Plantation, where she headed the Wampanoag Indian advisory committee and championed its request to change the name of its program from the Wampanoag Indian Program to the Wampanoag Indigenous Program, said Linda Coombs of Mashpee, its former associate director.

“Susan was steadfast in her support,’’ Coombs said.

Mrs. Jackson was a member of First Church in Boston, Unitarian Universalist, which she joined when she moved to Boston in the 1940s.

“Susan was already a monument here when I arrived at the church 10 years ago,’’ said its minister, the Rev. Stephen Kendrick. She served on the church search committee that chose him and his predecessor 40 years earlier.

When the Gothic church burned in 1968, Mrs. Jackson was on its rebuilding committee.

“She supported a more modern look with echoes of the Gothic, because it would reflect the forward-looking nature of our faith,’’ Kendrick said.

For many years, she created light verse for special events.

“I think mother could think in poetry,’’ said another daughter, Edith of Berkeley, Calif.

But she also put her energy into following her beliefs on significant political issues. An ardent Democrat and pacifist, she brought petitions against the Iraq war to local members of Congress.

“She was a powerhouse person,’’ Edith said.

In addition to her son and two daughters, Mrs. Jackson leaves another daughter, Susan Jackson Stillman of Seattle, and 10 grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 1:45 p.m. April 3 at First Church in Boston.

Gloria Negri can be reached at

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