Not only was Mr. Jackson the first African-American executive at Ford, but one of the few at any major company in North America at the time.

THERE'S AN AGE-OLD EXPRESSION THAT YOU DON'T realize how good someone or something is until they're gone. Well that's definitely true for myself in the case of Levi Jackson.

When I read last December that Mr. Jackson had died, I felt bad for two reasons. One, he was a good friend of my wife's ailing grandfather and two, I never had a chance to interview him.

His obituary was rife with accomplishments, but what intrigued me most was that he was Ford's first African-American white-collar employee and was instrumental in starting Ford Motor Co.'s Minority Dealer Training Program. To me, that makes him an automotive industry pioneer right up there with the more familiar names.

“When you look at African-Americans in business, auto dealers led the movement,” says long-time friend and associate Nathan Conyers of Riverside Ford in Detroit. “And Levi led that movement.”

I would have been interested in hearing about Mr. Jackson's pioneering experiences and hearing his perspective on today's industry. More than that, I would have relished the opportunity to share those with the readers of this magazine.

One person who did spend a lot of time with Mr. Jackson was Mel Farr. The Oak Park, MI-based Ford megadealer worked with Mr. Jackson in the late 1960s to develop the automaker's Minority Dealer Training Program. Mr. Jackson became a mentor to Mr. Farr, and the former Detroit Lion became the “guinea pig” for the training program they developed.

“We wrote some position papers for the Ford management that basically said there are minorities with management experience and capital, and that we needed to create a dealer training program,” recalls Mr. Farr. “It is by far the best in the industry since we have twice as many minority dealers as GM, Chrysler and the imports, combined.”

Mr. Jackson, however, paid a price for being a pioneer, says Mr. Farr.

“He had to be a special kind of guy,” says Mr. Farr. “To deal with that environment with style and to get accomplished what he accomplished. But it took its toll on his spirit.

“Levi was a low-key guy,” Mr. Farr recalls. “He didn't want the publicity. He just wanted to get the job done.”

When Mr. Jackson retired from Ford in 1983 after 32 years of service every member of the company's board of directors attended his farewell party.

He started at Ford in 1950, working his way up from various industrial and personnel positions to labor relations manager for the company's General Parts Division in 1962. Not only was Mr. Jackson the first African-American executive at Ford, but one of the few at any major company in North America at the time.

During 1967 and 1968 — years of racial unrest in Detroit and other major cities around the country — Mr. Jackson counseled city and private agencies on hiring and training in Detroit's inner city.

“Levi was the Ford family's eyes and ears in Detroit, and we knew it,” recalls Mr. Conyers. “So there was a lot of pressure on him to get things done, both from Ford and from the community.”

In recognition of this work, Ford gave him its highest honor for public service, the 1968 Citizen of the Year Award.

Mr. Jackson was a pioneer even before joining Ford Motor Co. At Yale University, he was the football team's first African-American captain and the first in the Ivy League. He set 13 records at halfback. One of them, the freshman rushing record, still stands.

Another measure of a man is by the company he keeps. And two of Mr. Jackson's best friends are pioneers in their own right.

One was Julius Goldman, an American Jew who helped coach the Canadian basketball team to a silver medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He was a member of the basketball rules committee that eliminated the jump ball after every field goal. He was named the greatest athlete in the history of his high school. In later years, he was regarded as one of the best referees in the Detroit Catholic League.

A mathematical and engineering genius, Mr. Goldman helped design anti-tank ammunition that pierced the previously unpenetrable German Tiger tank during World War II. When he retired from engineering he taught math at a local community college…well into his 80s.

Mr. Goldman died a couple of months after Mr. Jackson. He was 90 and my wife's grandfather.

The third and only surviving member of this amazing trio is Damon Keith, who still is a senior federal appeals court judge.

Judge Keith was one of the first African Americans appointed to the federal bench when President Lyndon Johnson made him a district court judge in 1967. Ten years later, President Jimmy Carter appointed Judge Keith to the appeals court.

In 1997, Judge Keith received the Thurgood Marshall Award for a lifetime of civil rights activism.

I would have enjoyed interviewing and writing about Mr. Jackson, but I also would have paid money just to sit in a room with these three men and listen to them talk. The irony is that once, five years ago, I was in the same room with them, and didn't realize what I was missing.

Tim Keenan is senior editor of Ward's Dealer Business. He can be reached at tim_keenan@intertec.com