30 years later: Remembering the tragic death of Michael Jackson

By Dwayne Wilder
For the Herald Democrat

In a bittersweet voice, Ashley Aleman reminisced about Michael Jackson’s big old car and cruising on the weekends.

Aleman recalls going to the baseball games to watch him play as well.

"He was so good," she added.

But now, the only time she can visit him is when she goes to the West Hill Cemetery in Sherman.

Michael Jackson

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The day Michael Jackson died, Nov. 30, 1990, was unseasonably warm in North Texas.

His baseball coach marked off a mile and a half from the school and parked his truck around a bend in the road. The athletes would be checked off the clipboard as they made their way to the truck; and of course, they had to run back to school to get dressed. So, there it was, ‘The Three Mile Bethany Line.’

They were called "Bethanys" because you ran along Bethany Road, a country pavement barely a roadway. There were no curbs or gutters; no shoulder; just the asphalt winding into the countryside.

There was camaraderie among the Sherman athletes, and a football player brought his car to help baseball players return to school without having to make the run back. The trick was not to let the coach see the car.

“It was a jacked-up tan colored car; I still remember it,” remembers Jackie Van Zandt, one of the stragglers heading toward the coach on Nov. 30. “I remember the car passing me with its loud pipes. I got out of the way. The next thing I remember was that the car was coming back towards me in reverse. And one of the kids was holding onto the bumper with his body under the car.”

According to Van Zandt, the boy was closer to the driver’s side attempting to keep his legs from the rear wheel. The car was so loud that no one could hear him yelling.

“The other two on the trunk (bed of the truck) were looking forward watching out for the coach; and didn’t see what was happening,” explained Van Zandt. “The boy eventually had to let go and was run over; the body went flying in the air and landed near me. He had gashes on this head and was delirious.”

Van Zandt remembered running over to Jackson and sitting crossed-legged with the boy’s head in his lap. Van Zandt talked to him and consoled him the best he could.

"It was very disturbing to see," he said.

Over the next few days, Van Zandt watched saw other students who were emotional at the hospital, but not really understanding the gravity of it all.

“I don’t think the reality hit until they pulled the plug,” said Van Zandt of Dec. 5, the day Michael Jackson was pronounced dead. “Michael was making progress, but he took a turn for the worse. They had to take him off life support. It came as a shock to all of us.”

Van Zandt remembers that there was a ‘massive turnout’ for the funeral.

“Michael was big into baseball; he was one of the best,” continued Van Zandt. “I remember they retired his number; and buried him in his SHS baseball uniform. Michael set a good example for us younger guys. He was well respected by us and everyone else, too. He was so polite; well-mannered and talented. It was such a tragic accident.

“It is still very vivid in my mind: the blood on my legs and shoes. It was hard to process: too many shocking moments. It happened so fast and was so unbelievable. We all saw it as an accident. There was no ill intent. It was just harmless - trying to get out of running."

Van Zandt also said that there was no one blamed anyone...just a simple accident, but a tragic one.

“They carry a lot of wounds around with them, even now,” said Beverly Jackson, Michael’s mother, who has lived 30 years with the pain and memories, too.

“We didn’t want to shove them in some closet and never look at them again,” said Beverly of the memories and pictures of her son. “We wanted to remember our family; and the things we did together over the years. It helps; it really does.”

That day was like any other for accountant Lamar Jackson who was on site auditing Sherman schools. A call came in, "Michael’s been hurt."

“I took it lightly at first," Michael’s dad said. “When he said to meet them at the hospital, my first thought was ‘Had he been shot?’”

Les Jackson, Lamar Jackson's eldest son, was at the accounting office with his mother when the call came in. But, Beverly Jackson took a different tact.

“I told Les that we should go to the school first to see what was happening,” she remembered. “We saw all these people crying; and we knew something horrible had happened.”

The Jackson parents met Lamar at Wilson N. Jones Hospital, now Wilson N. Jones Regional Medical Center,  arriving before the ambulance and began getting a picture of what had occurred to their youngest son. Les Jackson, who was a student at Austin College, noted it was important to him that he was close and could be there for all of his family, even in tragedy.

“Seeing Michael in the hospital was so unreal,” began Lamar. “He was always such a happy-go-lucky kid in school; he was always having fun. He was always happy; and an exuberant kind of kid. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

The internal injuries and head trauma were significant, but after surgery and after a few days of recovery, Michael was making some progress. He was in ICU for five days.

“We were there when he passed away,” said Lamar Jackson. “They thought he was getting better; everyone helping with Michael’s care were diligently trying to save him. We even brought his tennis shoes one day because we thought he might get out.

“As a father, I didn’t know what to do. Do you send him to a trauma unit in a bigger city? I knew I couldn’t make an intelligent decision about it at that point. What would you do if it were your son?”

The three surviving family members are still buoyed by the outpouring of support from the school and the community. Beverly recalled the number of students there that first day at the hospital; Lamar remembered the incredible number of people (‘hundreds’) who came the night of Michael’s passing.

“When things got worse, people started pouring in the hospital,” marveled Lamar. “From all over.”

The family remembered that the funeral ‘was a blur,’ but one aspect was therapeutic for friend and family alike—on the night before the service at the funeral home.

“We were hurt; we were mad; and of course, devastated,” began Beverly Jackson. “In a community where your son was popular and you owned a business, everywhere you went, people would know. So, it was refreshed in your mind all the time. And to make it worse, we could see others were hurting, too.”

Beverly Jackson mentioned that everyday activities could trigger an emotional response to Michael’s death.

“I’d be in the grocery store and see one of Michael’s favorite foods,” she said. “And I’d start crying right there in the aisle.”

Michael Jackson

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“The first two or three years, you are in a daze,” explained Beverly. “This happens to a lot of people; it identifies you. But people help; actually, it is the people you wouldn’t expect to help that help the most. Some people are just ‘there’ for you. They help make life normal for you again.”

For then neighbors Larry and Laura Gregor, the Jacksons are strong people, but the accident has taken a toll.

“It’s hard to say what kind of loss it has been; we are all devastated, of course,” said Larry Gregor. “You find out more about it (the loss) as time goes on. It has hurt both our families. It hurts me, too. All we can do is be their friends.”

The Gregors live in Appleton, WI now, but lived in the same neighborhood as the Jacksons when the boys were growing up. 

“We met because of baseball, of course,” smiled Larry Gregor. “I had the privilege of coaching both boys (Les and Michael). Incredible boys; great talents and great kids. Michael was fun to be around and had a great sense of humor. He was so coachable; I enjoyed coaching him. I miss him.”

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Not many get to take Michael Jackson  with them to the highest level of their profession, but Alan McDougal did; it was just last year when Colleyville Heritage High School beat Georgetown High School for the Texas Class 5A State Baseball Championship.

“I would have loved to have had him in the stands, but I had to settle with wearing his No. 5 jersey that day,” said McDougal, Colleyville Heritage coach, who grew up in Sherman. “When I put on that jersey, Michael comes with me; he is with me on the field. It did my heart proud.”

It was baseball that brought the two young sixth graders together when they played summer ball. ‘That’s when we became close friends,’ noted McDougal.

“We spent quite a bit of time together from then on; playing baseball all the way into high school,” recalled McDougal. “I remember Michael was feisty and full of spirit; he loved being in all the action.”

McDougal’s championship ring has Michael’s No. 5 on it. He wanted to celebrate Michael’s life with a great achievement. McDougal gets to tell his players about his high school friend at the beginning of each season because there are two no. 5’s in the jersey pile: one for a player and one for the head coach.

“I tell them how it happened: a freak accident. I tell them I might have been on that car; I tell them having to witness it was so bad,” said McDougal slowly. “I tell them how I ran so fast and so far to get help. I tell them about hearing the sirens in the distance and knowing the worse was happening.”

McDougal recalls wearing a no. 5 patch during his senior season of baseball in honor of Michael, their fallen teammate. McDougal remembers the plaque at Veteran’s Field that is dedicated to his friend.

“Everyone involved still has those memories seared in their minds,” he noted. “My life has been directed by what happened that day; and in a lot of ways, still is. It helps me remember how precious life is; about the frailty of Life. You must enjoy the good and the bad.”

According to McDougal, he believes that friendships were ‘deepened’ because of the accident.

“A lot of those guys there that day (in November 1990) were at my game last year. It speaks volumes about what happened and the life we had in Sherman growing up; such great relationships. When we get together; we come together,” mused McDougal. “We were a good group of friends then, but now, we are a close-knit group for sure. It was such an incredibly tragic time, but Michael is still with us when we remember.”

And McDougal believes it is all held together by the death and life of his friend, Michael Jackson.

“We all did everything together; played all the sports, fished and sat around laughing and talking,” recalled McDougal. “It’s frustrating that kids don’t get that now; Michael gave it all he had whether he was good at it or not. He was so talented; I know he would have been successful in whatever he did.”

Michael Jackson’s plaque will be moved to the new home of Sherman High School baseball when the athletic complex is complete at the new high school site.

Michael Jackson