Matt Jackson doesn’t remember if he was hired on the spot. Maybe it was the next day.

But at age 14, Jackson started working at Jerry’s Foods near his home in Edina.

There’s nothing unusual about a kid carting grocery bags out to people’s cars, or about one who moves up quickly to bagger.

But when Jackson was just 15 his mother died, and a very unusual young man emerged out of necessity.

“I had to grow up overnight,” Jackson said. “My dad taught me the importance of what we needed to do to get by.”

He learned how to do his own laundry. He kept his room clean and mowed the lawn. He stayed out of trouble.

And he stayed at Jerry’s Foods for 19 years, steadily advancing to the deli counter, then customer service, where he trained people twice his age, calmed customers railing about spoiled bananas and made friends on both sides of the cash register.

During that time, Jackson graduated from Edina High School and put himself through college, first at Normandale Community College, then at the University of Minnesota. He graduated from the U in 2008 with a degree in human resource development and only $4,000 in student loans.

Last month, 33-year-old Jackson was honored with cake and hugs at a “retirement party,” before he moved into his first full-time job outside the Jerry’s Foods family.

“Nineteen years. That is something,” said customer service manager Erin McGowan, who was trained by Jackson.

“One customer was very disappointed that she didn’t get to say goodbye to him,” McGowan said. “Another said that Matt was always having a good day. They’re really going to miss him, but he’s moving on to bigger and better things. He deserves it.”

Longtime family friend Len Lichtblau said Jackson’s job loyalty is rare in a young person today.

“I don’t know if you see that in adults anymore, either,” said Lichtblau, whose son Danny grew up with Matt. “I can’t tell you how happy I am that he thrived. He had opportunities to fail and managed to succeed.

“When you see someone who has earned it without expectations, it’s even more appreciated.”

Beginning in middle school, and continuing in high school, Jackson worked about 32 hours a week. He had a social life. It just started after 9 p.m. on weekends. On weeknights, he’d typically go home to do homework.

He pulled in B’s and C’s, which was OK by him, because he was getting A’s for his ability to deal with moldy produce and unhappy customers’ emotional baggage.

“I learned quickly how to connect one-on-one, to listen to people instead of letting it go in one ear and out the other,” Jackson said. “If they’re having a bad day and they take it out on you, you bite your lip. You can’t take it personally because you don’t know what their day was like.”

(He hopes they’d say the same about a younger Jackson, who once loaded a watermelon into a back seat — right onto a seat belt clip that punctured it.)

Fifty-two-year-old Karen Patterson, a 13-year Jerry’s employee, relied on Jackson to guide her through situations such as odd returns, or having to say “no” to customers hoping to cash a questionable check.

“He was always good at handling that without sending them off being raging mad,” Patterson said. “I often used him as an example.”

Jackson created a training program for the company’s produce department around organic certification, and made a step-by-step pamphlet to explain the self-checkout lanes.

He gives a big shout-out to Jerry’s for its willingness to accommodate his needs, which sometimes meant granting him extra hours to keep him occupied and distracted after his mother died.

“It was tough on both Matt and me,” said Jackson’s father, Lee.

Lee and Kathey were married for 24 years and ran a day-care center together, which they opened just after Matt was born. Kathey died at age 51 from complications of heart disease.

“When she died, quite suddenly, I kind of ran the business,” Lee said. “It kept me busy trying to get over the loss.”

The loss was equally profound for Matt, who was “very, very close” to his mother, said Lee, now remarried and living in a suburb of St. Paul.

“They used to have lunch dates periodically, and he’d talk to her about things he wouldn’t talk about with me.”

Lee was relieved when his son joined a grief group at Edina High School, but he grew increasingly worried when Matt kept returning to it.

“I talked to the teacher and asked, ‘Why does he keep taking the course?’ She said, ‘He’s my assistant now. He’s helpful to the other kids.’ I went from being concerned to, ‘Hey, this is cool.’ ”

On a recent Monday night, Jackson dropped by Jerry’s just to say hello. He couldn’t walk five steps without someone offering a fist bump or smile.

“Hey! How ya doing?” said Salvador Morales, working in the produce department. Morales stopped what he was doing to give Jackson a bear hug. “A lot of guys miss you. You leave a big door open.”

“See, you came back!” said Mustapha Essamit over in the seafood department,

Carol Bethke ran into Jackson near the customer service counter.

“It just doesn’t seem right,” said Bethke, giving Jackson a hug. “At your age, change is good,” she said with a laugh. “At my age, I hate it.”

One change is having a former co-worker deliver a pizza to his table in the store’s restaurant.

“Definitely weird,” said Jackson.

An even bigger change is getting used to a 9-to-5 job, Monday through Friday, where he’s in sales for an information security company.

Jackson said he’s looking forward to snowboarding at night — any night — playing Frisbee golf on Saturday afternoons and joining friends when they say, “Hey, we’re going to a movie.”

“I’ve never had anything like this,” he said.

He promises to visit Jerry’s on occasion to say hello and pick up a few groceries.

“But,” he said, “I’ll let them bag for me.”

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com