‘Stoney’ Jackson, 88; Conflicted Quiz-Show Winner
During the eruptions over fraud in TV quiz shows of the 1950s, many of the whistle-blowers were sore losers who fumbled the answers under the unforgiving glare of studio lights.
What history may most remember about Charles E. “Stoney” Jackson Jr. was that he was a sore winner.
A peripatetic minister and writer who never had much money and let it slip through his fingers when he did, Jackson had a moment of fame in 1956, when he won $20,000 on two of the era’s top-rated shows--"The $64,000 Question” and “The $64,000 Challenge.”
Later, he told anyone he could--including a congressional committee--that the shows’ producers fed him answers. In so doing, he became a character in one of the decade’s most disillusioning morality tales.
Jackson, who died of renal failure March 24 in Denver at age 88, was remembered as one whose dreams and ethical views always placed him just outside the margins of acceptability.
He founded several organizations, including the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, but lost control of them to others. He was also an advocate for the homeless and a professional curmudgeon, who once ran two of his dogs for president on the slogan that it was “better for a dog to go to the White House than for the White House to go to the dogs.”
Passion for Sports, Devotion to Christ
The son of a clergyman, Jackson was a graduate of Transylvania College in Kentucky, where he played football and was a welterweight boxer. He was ordained in the Disciples of Christ Church in the early 1940s.
After a series of ministerial positions in small Southern towns, he returned in 1949 to his hometown of Tullahoma, Tenn., where he developed a scheme that combined his passion for sports with his devotion to Christ.
He organized Tennessee high school teams in a Christian football bowl with the goal of using the proceeds to open a home for wayward boys. But he wound up $25,000 in debt.
In 1955, CBS introduced “The $64,000 Question.” It enthralled audiences with contestants isolated in separate booths who answered questions pulled from a vault guarded by a dark-suited banker. It was followed a year later by “The $64,000 Challenge,” which pitted the original show’s winners against new contestants.
Jackson wrote to the producers of “The $64,000 Question” in late 1956. He offered himself as an expert on football, boxing and movie Westerns, but failed to elicit much of a response.
Then, he hit on a topic he felt sure would earn him the hot seat: great lovers. The producers called back right away, but changed the category to “great love stories.”
After cramming for 10 days, he was flown to New York, where he was quizzed informally by producer Mert Koplin. Jackson did well enough to go on the show that night and win a second appearance at a future date.
But something had rubbed him the wrong way. During his session with Koplin, whenever he had faltered over an answer, Koplin supplied it.
Back in Tullahoma, he talked about his uneasiness in sermons at church and in a speech to a local merchants’ group. No one shared his qualms. In fact, one friend told him flatly: “Shut up and don’t be an idiot!”
So Jackson did. He returned to New York and enjoyed the free lodging in a posh hotel and pampering by the show’s staff.
“I’m in hog heaven,” he said when he passed the $8,000 mark after correctly answering a question about Longfellow’s “Evangeline,” a question that Koplin knew he could answer correctly.
But when he reached $16,000, the warm glow of celebrity turned suddenly to ice. The staff stopped laughing at his jokes. They stopped talking to him altogether.
A young production assistant finally clued him in: The cold shoulder was a signal to stop winning. If he ignored it, she said, the producers would toss him a question they knew he couldn’t handle and he would be booted off the show.
Jackson accepted the $16,000 and said goodbye on camera.
Two months later, he was rewarded with an invitation to compete on “The $64,000 Challenge.”
Again, before show time, he met with a producer, Shirley Bernstein, who casually began discussing great love stories.
At one point she asked if Jackson was familiar with the author of a 19th-century poem similar to Christopher Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander.” When he said he didn’t know, Bernstein told him. “It was Thomas Hood,” she said.
The question came up on Jackson’s second week on the show. His rival, a sexagenarian named Doll Goosetree, drew a blank.
When it was Jackson’s turn, he almost blurted out, “I know the answer because Shirley Bernstein gave it to me.” Instead, he gave the correct answer and won $4,000. By the rules of the game, his reign was over, and he left the show.
Later, he found out from Goosetree that she had been told to bone up on Shakespeare. Thus misled, she was bound to lose. Jackson was outraged “because they cheated both of us,” he recalled in an interview with Associated Press in 1994.
‘Most of Us Have a Good Bit of Larceny’
He wrote to Time magazine, the New York Times, the Nashville Tennessean. No one was interested, not even his hometown Tullahoma News.
Then, a standby contestant on another CBS show, “Dotto,” produced irrefutable evidence that the current champion had been pre-fed the answers. The show was canceled, and the dam broke.
Jackson got to tell his story to the New York Times. Then, in 1959, he was among those called before the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce in hearings on the quiz-show scandals.
“Most of us,” Jackson told the congressional committee, “have a good bit of larceny in us, if we admit it, because this is an age where a lot of respect is directed toward a man with money, and a good deal of looking askance at the man who doesn’t have it, regardless of what his character may be.”
When Jackson returned home, he was treated as a fool and a snitch. “A heavy aura of disgrace clung to Stoney, who somehow felt required to apologize for his truthfulness,” Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg wrote after interviewing Jackson on the 30th anniversary of the congressional hearings in 1989.
Tullahomans eventually forgave Jackson. He preached in several churches and resumed his journalism career, which included stints as a columnist for the Tullahoma News and as editor of the Huntsville News in Alabama and the Grundy County Herald in Tracy City, Tenn.
‘I’m Always Out of Step With Society’
During the 1960s, he founded the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and the International Churchmen’s Sports Hall of Fame. A visionary with a wretched hold on basic principles of good business, he lost control of both groups.
According to Pastor Richard Smith, Jackson’s friend of 50 years, the same thing happened to the Christian Athletes Foundation, which Jackson started in the late 1940s to minister to the sports world. “Stoney let it slip through his fingers,” said Smith, who said the foundation was taken over by others and evolved into the highly successful Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a national athletic ministry now based in Kansas City, Mo.
In the late 1960s, after long illnesses that piled up medical bills, Jackson’s parents died. The quiz-show money was long gone. In 1978, mandatory retirement left him without a job. A year later, he lost his house to creditors and was left homeless with his six dogs. For a few years, he and the dogs lived in his 1971 Maverick. For part of that time, he parked at his parents’ gravesite in Tullahoma.
Jackson landed in Denver in 1980. He spent the next several years in and out of homelessness. With the aid of the local ACLU, he sued the city of Denver to give the homeless the ability to vote. The city settled in 1986, agreeing to allow the homeless to register to vote by designating a shelter, church or other service agency as their legal residence.
“He was incredibly astute politically,” recalled David H. Miller, who represented Jackson as the ACLU attorney and later became his friend and guardian.
At the end of his life, Jackson was better known for running his dogs, Lady and Pirate, as write-in presidential candidates.
“He said, ‘I’m always out of step with society,’” recalled Smith. “He had the mind of a genius, and it drove him crazy.”
Jackson’s surviving dog, Little Girl, was adopted by the wife of a Colorado politician.
He is survived by two nieces, who supported him the last decade of his life.