A night to remember

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Waiting to enter the ceremony in the lobby of the Coweta Centre for Performing and Visual Arts are Denise and Alan Jackson with daughters Dani, Mattie and Alexandra.

BY MEGAN ALMON megan@newnan.com On Oct. 27, 2001, the nation was in turmoil in the aftermath of Sept. 11, autumn hit Georgia full force with a sudden and significant drop in temperature, and Newnan native Alan Jackson took the stage at his former high school's football stadium to raise money for the Angel's House, a local children's shelter. Jackson remembers that night well, and recounted its events for the audience at Tuesday's inaugural Richard Brooks Visionary Award for Artistic Distinction induction ceremony.
He'd been "home" -- singing at Newnan High's Drake Stadium for family, friends and fans who knew him before Nashville. He got back to Nashville late the same night. At 2 a.m., he woke up, his mind unable to rest. Flowing through it were the words to what Cowetan Joe Crain, a speaker who honored Jackson at Tuesday's event, called "one of the greatest songs ever written" -- "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning." "That song came in my head," Jackson said. He wrote the chorus and its melody in the middle of the night, captured it on a small hand-held digital recorder, and went back to bed. The next day, he wrote the lyrics for the verses. Jackson said the song was a gift from God. "I figured I came and played for the children, and he sent me that song," Jackson said. Crain said the song "soothed the wounds of the nation after 9/11." "It reminded us of the simple values," he said. Tuesday was an evening for remembering and for celebrating at Coweta's Centre for Performing and Visual Arts. Former Coweta County Schools Superintendent Richard Brooks proposed a performing arts center when the county passed the first Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax earmarked for education in 1997. Brooks envisioned a facility that would be centrally located, said school board member Mike Sumner. Sumner admitted he had his own doubts, and worried -- as many did -- that Brooks' center might be "a white elephant in the middle of nowhere." To appease the critics, Brooks had the center placed at the bottom of the list on the first Education SPLOST referendum, promising no ground would be broken until other building projects were taken care of. "Now, 12 years later, the Centre has truly become an extension of the classroom, no matter the age of the student," Sumner said. To honor Brooks' courage in the face of adversity and his vision-made-real Centre, current Superintendent Blake Bass proposed a local "hall of fame" for contributors to the arts in Brooks' honor. A committee of Cowetans -- Winston Dowdell, Genet Barron and Joe Crain -- chose the first three recipients for the award. Honored Tuesday night were Alan and Denise Jackson, and the late Erskine Caldwell. Brooks was honored before the awards were presented. "It's been a pleasure and an honor to live in a community such as this, where people care," he said. First to receive the award was best-selling author and Coweta native Denise Jackson. Following a slide show of photographs to husband Alan Jackson's song "A Woman's Love," Denise's lifelong friend Ame Whitlock shared some of the pair's memories. Both grew up attending Unity Baptist Church and Atkinson Elementary. Their eighth grade class was the first to graduate from O.P. Evans Junior High School in 1974 -- Whitlock had a 1974 yearbook in hand, three pages of which were "signed" by Denise. "She was quite the writer, even then," Whitlock said. Part of the message expressed excitement about an upcoming mission trip to West Virginia the pair would take with their youth group that summer. Whitlock said Denise's display of compassion that summer was an inspiration, much like her recently-published book "It's All About Him." "Neecey opened up her life for millions to view," Whitlock said, and noted her friend's courage. "Denise is a woman of faith, of vision, a leader and a woman who does enthusiastically embrace the visions of others," she said. School board member and former Atkinson Elementary School teacher Sue Brown presented Denise with a special gift -- the black tie Denise borrowed along with a pink blouse from Brown for a job interview to become a flight attendant. It was Denise's chance meeting with a well-known musician during a flight that helped jump-start her husband's career. Brown spoke directly to Alan when she said, "I'll bet you didn't know you owe your career to my $10 pink blouse from Kmart and black tie." Bernie Parks, a visionary partner with Newnan's children's shelter Angel's House, spoke of Denise's generosity. The Jacksons' generosity gave wings to the shelter, and the couple gave it its fitting name -- after calling their own children by pet names involving "Angel." Denise's sister, Jane Johnson, read excerpts from "It's All About Him" before introducing her "baby sister." Denise was quick to credit God with the reasons for which she was being honored. She quoted Chuck Colson: "It's not what you do in this life that matters; it's what a sovereign God chooses to do through you." Master of Ceremonies Glenn Rainey was the first to honor the next recipient, the late Coweta-born author Caldwell. Rainey spoke of Caldwell's birthplace, "The Little Manse," which now serves as a commemorative museum in Moreland. The audience was treated to a reading from Caldwell's "In Search of Bisco," by Michael Scialabba, before Winston Skinner, who heads the Erskine Caldwell Museum board, shared a little of Caldwell's history. The writer's grandson, Tim Gooding, accepted the award and expressed the family's desire that the plaque be displayed in his grandfather's museum. Honoring a country music legend wouldn't have been complete without music. The combined choruses from Atkinson and Grantville elementary schools donned white cowboy hats and shades for a performance of Alan Jackson's song "Little Bitty." The star, seated on the front row, was the first to his feet to applaud the youngsters. Jackson's record producer from Nashville, Keith Stegall, shared that he and Alan were both in the business of "professional dreaming." Longtime Newnan High School Drama Coach Claudette Sides shared poignant memories of Jackson "bringing down the house" with a performance of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" in his class senior play. Sides shared she was recently visiting a friend in London when she was reminded of her former student's fame. The two were at a pub "right across from Scotland Yard" when a trio of young women sashayed to the jukebox. Next thing Sides knew, Alan's latest hit was blaring through the speakers. Her British friend couldn't resist bragging that Sides was from Jackson's hometown. The girls began screaming, and each took turns shaking Sides' hand. "They had to touch me," she said. "I didn't tell them I really know him. I was afraid I'd never get out of there." Country music duo The Wrights -- Jackson's nephew Adam and wife, Shannon -- honored Jackson with a touching acoustic performance of the song he wrote for his mama and daddy, "Home." "I don't make a habit of singing songs people wrote when they're sitting on the front row," Adam Wright joked. The audience laughed when "The Family" -- Alan's mother, Ruth; sisters Connie, Carol, Cathy and Diane; and brother-in-law, Lamar Wright -- took the stage in the singer's trademark ripped blue jeans. The group surprised the audience with a medley from Jackson's gospel album, "Precious Memories." Jackson thanked his family and those who honored him. "That's a good look," he said of his family's blue jeans. "I may have to think about that." He said The Wrights' performance was "prettier" than his own version, and that "Home" was one of the first songs he wrote when he moved to Nashville. He'd been homesick, and the song was written as a Mother's Day gift. Though he's considered a giant in the music industry, the singer admitted he's "never liked the stage." Perhaps Crain, a former school board member, summed up his personality best. "Alan is the same person he was growing up on Franklin Highway -- bashful, humble, respectful, and he has no idea why he is so popular and everybody loves him." "It's hard to believe I've lived in Nashville as long as I lived here," Jackson said. "I'm a visual man, and I see in my mind things from Coweta County and Newnan. They find their way into my songs, and they probably always will." Master of Ceremonies and Newnan's own Broadway performer Rainey wrapped the event with a performance from the popular musical "Wicked." Titled "For Good," Rainey sang, "Because I knew you, I have been changed for good."


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