AMERICAN CORNER - Obviously, some folks in Annapolis are underestimating H. George Jackson Jr.
Ask anybody who knows the rotund former tractor-tire installer, part-time newspaper subscription agent, amateur weather observer and renowned Santa Claus impersonator. What you'll hear is that the affable Jackson doesn't know the meaning of quit.
For eight years now, Jackson, 54, has been on a mission to send huge scrolls of holiday greetings to American service men and women all over the globe. This past Christmas, the U.S. Air Force hauled more than 6,000 feet of letters, notes, poems, autographs and drawings scribbled on 16 rolls of leftover paper donated by two Eastern Shore publishers.
Mostly, Jackson gathers signatures at shopping centers, county fairs, Little League games, anywhere there's a crowd near his home in this speck of a crossroads in rural Caroline County.
But Jackson has hit an unaccustomed stone wall - rejected in his attempts to roll out scrolls at the Maryland State House, a beehive of activity for the next two months that he thinks would be a perfect place to kick off the 2003 signing effort.
Jackson has taken scrolls to Congress for signing. Several times. He has photographs of himself on the Capitol steps, dressed as Santa. Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner signed a scroll once, as did then-Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland. Gov. Parris N. Glendening for several years sent letters to Jackson to attach to the scrolls.
"I just can't figure it," says a baffled Jackson. "This is about supporting our troops. I love doing this, and I don't mean to involve politics in it at all."
Nobody at the State House Trust, the panel charged with maintaining the decorum and dignity of the building, is arguing that his heart isn't in the right place. No one's saying it isn't a worthy cause.
But if Jackson's scrolls are allowed in the State House, where would it stop, wonders Mimi Calver, an administrator for the trust consisting of the governor or lieutenant governor, the state archivist, the House speaker and the Senate president.
A more appropriate place for the scrolls would be outside on Lawyers Mall, she says.
"You don't need to have an imagination to picture what the State House lobby could look like without guidelines," says Calver, whose main job is director of exhibits, outreach and artistic properties at the state archive. "This is about maintaining public areas for the public business."
Jackson has heard that argument; he just isn't buying it.
Jackson has a long-standing reputation for jovial persistence and self-deprecating humor that puts people at ease, a style that has worked in previous dealings with state officials. He calls almost everyone "sir" and he rarely loses his temper.
The last time Jackson showed up with a scroll in Annapolis, he was bearing a message from hundreds of Caroline County residents. He rolled 400 feet of paper down a hall in the State House, getting the attention of Glendening, who ordered repairs to Dover Bridge, a dilapidated Choptank River crossing that Jackson still insists ought to be replaced.
Ehrlich came down to take a look at the structure during last year's campaign, thanks to a batch of e-mails from Jackson. Contact with the candidate also got Jackson and his wife, Shirley, an invitation to the governor's inauguration last month.
Three years ago, Jackson organized a petition drive to get state officials to look at safety issues on Route 404, a main thoroughfare for beach-going tourists that cuts through the heart of sleepy Caroline.
Another time, Jackson helped convince then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer that a dangerous intersection in nearby Federalsburg needed a traffic light.
"George tends to make a clatter," says County Commissioner John W. "Jack" Cole, who sent a letter of support for Jackson to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "But in a time where we're headed for war, it offends me that the state would react this way to all his work on this."
This week, Jackson e-mailed every member of the legislature. He has talked to the governor's office. He has e-mailed city officials in Baltimore and Frederick for moral support.
"We all love George to death," says Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich. "We aren't sure this is an issue the governor can solve. And you can understand an argument about other groups, other people wanting the chance to do the same thing."
Back in Caroline County, economic development director J.O.K. Walsh says that the people of Caroline - the only county in Maryland without a resident delegate in the State House (another of Jackson's causes) - are never going to get much without a fight.
"I've always admired George's steadfastness, his determination," says Walsh. "He's somebody who's sort of a character, somebody who stands out and takes things on."
Over in Dover, Del., at the 436th Airlift Wing, Lt. Olivia Nelson can't understand what all the fuss is about. The public affairs officer who helps Jackson get the scrolls on military transports to all parts of the globe says the greeting cards are appreciated, now more than ever.
"I hear from George all the time, whenever he gets a card or an e-mail from someone overseas," Nelson says. "I can tell you the scrolls boost morale.
"These kids don't care who signs them, whether they're Maryland legislators or what. They're just glad for the support from home."