Render unto Caeser

by Judy Hodgson

After 51 years and thousands of tax returns, oh, the stories Bill Jackson could tell!

Like the time a Native American woman from Klamath, Ore., showed up in his office with a paper bag full of cash -- $50,000, give or take a few -- and started piling up $100 bills in neat stacks on his desk.

Or the time he defended an artist against IRS auditors who claimed she wasn't a legitimate business person. (Jackson had her haul her paintings down to Union Square in San Francisco and carry them into the appeal hearing. "The auditor darn near bought one!" he said.)

Or the time a client was being dinged for $500,000 in taxes related to his export business because he carried "too much" money in his cash account. (Jackson argued, "Just how much is too much?" and won after first refusing an offer to compromise.)

Jackson knows the IRS code -- backward and forward -- and has never been shy about standing up for clients in their pursuit to pay the federal government as little as legally possible.

"'Render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar's,' but only those that are Caesar's," is one of his favorite sayings.

Probably more significant than the thousands of returns he has filed over all those years is the thousands of students he has faced in the classroom.

In 1946 Jackson was the first business teacher hired by Humboldt State College. He was the founder of the Business Department, coauthored a widely used textbook called "Essential Business Mathematics," and was chosen Outstanding Professor in 1978. He attempted to retire in 1982, but was called back again until he retired from teaching for good in 1989.

"It's been a real satisfying profession," Jackson said as he sat in his office last month in a rumpled shirt and crooked tie.

"I enjoy this, too, meeting with people across the table, helping them with their taxes," he said. "But teaching school -- it's one of the few jobs that Monday morning would come, and I would be so eager to get to school and share this thought or subject with my students."

And his former students are now everywhere: IRS auditors, CPAs, controllers for big companies, business owners and general managers. Looking down the list of North Coast accounting firms in the Yellow Pages, it would be difficult to find one that didn't have a Jackson-trained member of the staff.

"Leading CPA firms ... have the red carpet out for Humboldt State accounting majors who call at their door because they know they are 'Bill Jackson-taught,'" wrote fellow Professor Tom Wattle when Jackson was nominated for the state teaching award.

Spring was always a busy time of year for Jackson because of his moonlighting. At first it was tax returns for family and friends, a cemetery, a senior group and other non-profits. "Oh, yeah. And the priests and nuns," he added.

Along the way he founded two accounting firms, Hesse, Jackson and Green, from which he retired in 1984, and later the Jackson Accountancy Corp. (now Jackson & Eklund).

"I had a lot of students who wanted to stay here and I had a lot of clients I was turning away," he said. "So that's how the firm started."

After he retired from teaching, he slowly began paring down his list of tax clients. And this year -- this month -- he will be filing his last returns.

My husband and I found Bill Jackson soon after our arrival in Humboldt County in the early 1970s. (We were among those long ago pared off his list.) I recall the early years when he made house calls. Sitting across our kitchen table, we asked anxious questions about how he thought our little business enterprise was really doing and he would answer in the abstract: "Do you like what you're doing? Are you having a good time? Remember, make sure to take time to enjoy your life. You know, time to pick the daisies."

In addition to his gentle, good humor and his unfailingly cheerful outlook, we soon learned that he was not the button-down conservative one would expect as an accountant.

"I've had real good fortune over the years with the IRS," he said modestly. "You don't do anything illegal ever, of course. And keep good records.

"But I think I'm more of an aggressive person. If you're too conservative, you might say, 'Well, I don't want to deduct this because I'm afraid I might get an audit.'"

And he always loved championing the underdog. In addition to being the accountant to many artists who often end the year in the red, he remembers doing battle with the IRS on behalf of women coaches at HSU.

"They didn't get the budget like the men coaches did to go on sports trips. So I started deducting all that stuff. It was part of their jobs," he said. "The IRS didn't like that."

Jackson's hardships in his early life very much contributed to his cheerful nature. ("I've had a good life, a lot to be thankful for.") His parents lost their Washington sheep ranching business in the Depression. The family moved to Eureka, where his mother cooked and his father did carpentry.

Jackson graduated from Eureka High School in 1937 but in his freshman year at Humboldt State, he was stricken with tuberculosis. ("I remember having to cancel my date that night because I had to check into the sanatorium.")

He spent 18 months in quarantine, but was thrilled to finally walk out cured. ("A lot of people didn't, you know," he said.) He also lost his first wife in the 1951 polio outbreak that hit the North Coast.

Three years later, a widower with two babies, Jackson married Peg Vallee and they had six more children, bringing the total to eight, "all of them girls except five."

Jackson said he'll let his CPA license lapse next fall when he turns 78. But he'll probably continue to do a few returns for family and friends.

So what was the story on the Klamath women with the bag of cash?

The federal government had ruled that the Klamath Indians had to pay tax -- about 50 percent -- on receipts from the sale of timber from the reservation (a decision it later reversed). The returns were difficult because Native Americans are not normally required to pay U.S. taxes and they had no tax history. But Jackson figured out expenses and deductions, and filed returns for her and the 15 to 20 other tribe members who made the trip with her. (They were all waiting in the lobby with similar sums of cash.)

"But first I made them promise to put the money into a local bank and wire it back home."

Jackson said he was vacuuming the carpet for weeks afterward looking for $100 bills.

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