Hundreds gather to remember life of Jess Jackson

  • Julia Jackson wipes away a tear recalling her father, Jess Jackson, at his memorial service at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, CA on Thursday, May 12, 2011.

Nearly 1,000 people gathered Thursday to toast the life and legacy of Jess Jackson, a self-made billionaire who built Jackson Family Wines into Sonoma County's largest wine empire with a worldwide reputation.

His memorial service at Wells Fargo Center for the Arts attracted a diverse crowd, from Kentucky horse trainers to a Hollywood director, from friends of his five children to pals from his college days at UC Berkeley.

Their memories of Jackson, who died April 21 of cancer at the age of 81, drew tears, laughter and unfettered admiration for a man absorbed by hard work, strong opinions and a spirited sense of competition.

Jess Jackson Memorial


"He was an extraordinary man, and an ordinary guy," said Steve Miller, chairman of insurance giant AIG and a friend of Jackson. "He would arrive in his extravagant jet, and drive away in a beat-up old pickup."

The grandeur of the service nearly matched Jackson's big personality, including the reading of a eulogy written for the occasion by baseball legend Willie Mays and a tribute sung by Franc D'Ambrosio, famed for his performances in "The Phantom of the Opera." The U.S. Congress sent the flag that flew above the Capitol the day Jackson died, and Gov. Jerry Brown declared Thursday "Jess Stonestreet Jackson Day."

The public memorial service also illuminated personal moments of the industry giant, a private man who built a business not only to raise grapes, but also a family.

His wife, Barbara Banke, and five grown children sat in the front row, taking turns speaking about a man with a reputation as a fierce businessman, but who they knew as a loving father and husband. Around his Geyserville home, he was a kind, funny, sweet presence, even as he taught them to work hard.

"That's how I saw him," Banke said. "He was my husband, my partner and my best friend for many years."

Jackson's youngest daughter, Julia, delivered a heart-warming ode to her father, crediting him with fostering her love of classical music.

"When I was a little girl, my dad would put me on his lap," Julia said, tears welling in her eyes. "He would put my small hands on his hands, and we would play piano together."

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