Jackson, who suffered from cerebral palsy, was a constant presence at numerous events throughout Eastern’s community for the last 17 years. He developed special connections with students, former students and faculty members.
On the morning of Nov. 28, a familiar face was missing from Eastern Regional High School’s campus.
For years, Bruce Jackson roamed the hallways, acting like he was on his way to class. He rode around the athletic fields making stops at every practice and game.
Jackson wasn’t a student at Eastern; he was the school’s biggest fan for almost 20 years. His uplifting personality was one of a kind, and his infectious smile could be seen miles away. That smile is now a vivid memory for the Eastern community who loved him dearly. Jackson died Saturday due to kidney failure. He was 52. Funeral arrangements are pending.
A constant presence
If you walked onto the school’s campus at any time of day, Jackson would be there.
In the morning, he’d be in the hallways chatting it up with students and faculty, greeting them with his signature, “How you doing?” He was there so often, administration eventually told him he wasn’t allowed in the building until the last bell rang at 2:15.
In the afternoon, he’d make his rounds to practices — football, field hockey, soccer and marching band to make a few. He’d also stop by drama rehearsals to hang out with students in the wings and keep a watchful eye on those performing onstage.
In the evening, he’d be on the basketball court cheering on the boys and girls freshmen, junior varsity and varsity teams — always with a smile on his face.
When it came to Friday night lights, he didn’t miss any football games. Even in the rain and sleet, he was there with a sweatshirt and blanket to keep him warm. Nothing would stop him from cheering his favorite team.
When it all began
Jackson was born with cerebral palsy and lived at The Voorhees Rehabilitation & Care Center on Laurel Road across the street from Eastern. His time at the high school started about 17 years ago, according to Gary Worthington, health and physical education teacher and close friend of Jackson. The rehabilitation care center staff and members would regularly walk around Eastern’s campus to let the members get fresh air and exercise. Jackson would wander toward the football field when physical education classes were taking place during the day.
“He started coming over on a regular basis and it got to the point where everyday he was coming over, acknowledging us, saying hi, had a big smile and a lot of energy,” Worthington recalled. “We didn’t know who he was until he brought out his letter board and started communicating. We found out his name is Bruce and he lives across the street at the rehabilitation center, and from that point, he was at our side ever since.”
Part of the team
Worthington has been involved in many sports since he started at Eastern and is the assistant coach for three sports — wrestling, football and softball. Through those sports, Jackson’s bond grew not only with Worthington, but the coaching staff of all those teams and the student athletes. His constant presence at games and practices showed how much he loved being a part of their lives, and they showed him the same amount of love right back.
“Rain, sleet or snow, we always saw him regardless of what we were doing,” Worthington said. “He was a part of us; we started calling him Coach Bruce. He tried working out with us; he wanted to be able to coach the kids and wanted us to give him a directive to coach the kids. It was hard to communicate, but everybody loved him. The kids adored him.”
Eastern English teacher Walter Bowne added that sometimes Jackson was the entire cheering section for a team — and that was enough.
“Some kids have said, ‘The only person that stayed for my volleyball game was him,’” Bowne recalled.
“He was always at everyone’s games and he was team spirit in a form of a person,” freshman Kelli McGroarty said. “He was always there to pick people up and was such a happy guy.”
Former student and football player Sean McAleer recalled a 2003 semifinal football game at Cherokee High School where the players and coaches made special arrangements to make sure Jackson was there, and he made a statement at the visitor’s stadium.
“We got a special vehicle for him to come to the Cherokee game,” the 2004 graduate said. “He came down the hill waving his Eastern shirt, and that’s where Cherokee was coming out. He had so much fun and enjoyed being around us as a football team. He loved being a part of Eastern, and that’s why he’s considered family.”
Jackson didn’t just show up to sporting events. He went to marching band practices, drama rehearsals, dance practices and various club meetings.
“He always had a smile on his face cheering on every team, sport or non sport,” senior Brooke Stafford said. “He was basically our No. 1 fan and the happiest guy around.”
“Bruce made sure to attend all of our marching band practices,” said Emily Heiser, a 2005 graduate. “They were two nights a week plus the football game performance, and if a band competition was home, you could always count on Bruce to be there with his Eastern spirit cheering us on. He wasn’t just a fan; he was a part of the team.”
While he was unable to communicate verbally, Jackson communicated through a letter board he carried with him everywhere. With those who he did not communicate with through the letter board, he communicated with his smile and gestures.
“He’d point to it and you’d know what he was talking about,” Worthington said. “He would verbally say certain things or mumble stuff, and I got to the point where I was around him so much, I started understanding him. And while he was pointing to the letters, I could understand what he was saying before he even finished it. Just being with somebody so long, you became accustomed to it.”
Jackson used a wheelchair to get around, and because he used it so often riding to Eastern and due to parts breaking frequently, Worthington created a GoFundMe page to raise money for a new wheelchair. The original goal was $5,000, and more than $20,000 was raised in less than two weeks.
“I wanted him to be able to do things free without having to worry about the battery dying,” Worthington said. “With the new wheelchair, he could last four or five days on one battery. He could reach up to access things on shelves, he could lay back and take a nap if he wanted to and he took a lot of naps. It enabled him to be more free.”
Jackson’s new wheels were also essential because he made the rounds in other parts of the area. Even if you didn’t go to Eastern, chances are you saw him in and around Voorhees. He made frequent trips to the Carmike Movie Theater and Coffee Works, listening to music and performing interpretative dances. You might have also seen him riding down Route 561. Every now and then, motorists called the Voorhees Police Department to report a “crazy guy” riding down the busy road in his wheelchair. Every time, the police knew it was Jackson. And they let him keep riding.
He kept riding all the way to Rowan University one of those days to see Eastern’s football game.
“One of the parents found him on (Route) 295 because he was trying to get to Rowan to watch them play football,” said Jamie McGorarty, health and physical education teacher and girls basketball coach. “They picked up his wheelchair because it ran out of gas.”
On another occasion, he transported himself all the way to Rutgers-Camden for a summer league basketball game and surprised the heck out of McGroarty.
“All of a sudden I’m pulling through the parking lot and I almost hit him,” McGroarty recalled laughing. “Everybody was like, what is he doing here? It’s amazing. That just shows you how dedicated he was to these kids; they were amazed and so happy. A meaningless summer league game and he got money and found a way to get to Rutgers-Camden.”
“It was almost as if he wasn’t in that chair because he was all over the place,” Principal Robert Tull said. “Wherever he wanted to go, he got there. He found a way to get there.”
Defying the odds
Interpretative dancing was a major part of his life before his body started deteriorating. He was part of a dance group in New York and traveled around the United States and other countries, according to Worthington. Even though his body was weakening, his spirit never did. He continued to perform interpretative dance at Coffee Works and at a local church.
“These limitations that he had, they didn’t limit him,” Worthington said. “He kept on doing what he had to do regardless of his disability.”
Everyone’s friendship with Jackson was unique in its own way. He was very close to Tull, something his administrative assistant said was special to see every day.
“I would see Bruce running through the halls in his wheelchair, flying all around, and the look on his face when he would get to see Mr. Tull was something that would almost bring a tear to your eye,” Sherri Palmer recalled. “He felt so dear toward him, you could see that.”
“He was a good friend, someone we welcomed here with open arms, and I’m going to miss him,” Tull said.
Going to Philadelphia Flyers games with McAleer was one of Jackson’s favorite activities, and McAleer said the employees at the Wells Fargo Center were always willing to help when needed.
“People were so accommodating to us about chopping his food into smaller pieces for him,” said the 2004 graduate. “He was just another human being like the rest of us. He just had a special gift that God gave him to motivate people to get them to smile.”
Jackson has touched thousands of lives since he joined the Eastern community, which is almost unfathomable to think when you put that into perspective.
“I think he was an inspiration to everybody and everybody loved him,” Jamie McGroarty said. “I think he got out a lot from us, but we also got a lot from him. He loves all the sports, all the kids, all the activities. You ask anyone who went through here, they knew Bruce. Maybe not personally, but everybody knows him, and the athletes especially had a great relationship with him.”
“He taught me perseverance, dedication and to be happy,” Worthington said. “He was there when my kids were growing up and would always ask questions like how are you doing. It was never I need this.”
Worthington also learned to enjoy life more and be grateful for what you have each day.
“He lived life, enjoyed it, embraced it and never complained,” Worthington said. “He was so happy to get up in the morning. I got to a point where every morning I was happy to put my feet on the floor and said alright, it’s the start of a new day. My life was good no matter how bad at times it was. I always thought about him and what life was for him. I’m better now because he’s free.”
“When you try to conceptualize the loss, we really are only feeling it because we know it, but the impact’s going to take place once the spring hits or once we start competitions and the winter sports,” Tull said. “Or even in the summer when he’s working with the camps. He was always here, that’s just what he did. He had his special way of just touching people. That’s what he was able to do.”