Freddye "Action" Jackson arrived at the Baltimore funeral in a splendiferous 1990 Lincoln Town Car -- silver, all waxed and polished. Even the tires glistened.
He came to pay respects to his wife's grandmother. He also came to sell cars.
Jackson parked the Lincoln near the funeral parlor's front door, close enough to be noticed, distant enough to be discreet. His name was scripted on the car's front vanity plate, a sort of mobile business card for himself and his Fairfax car dealership.
Jackson, president and general manager of Brown Lincoln-Mercury, turned to a visitor after the funeral.
"Those Cadillacs are getting pretty old," he said of the undertaker's fleet of hearses and limousines. "I'm going to have to talk to that man."
Frederick Thomas Jackson, 55, son of Augustus P. Jackson Sr. and Gaither Camp Jackson, has come a long way since his childhood days of hustling odd jobs on the streets of Washington. He is now one of the best car salesmen in the country -- single-handedly selling about 550 cars a year, about as many as are sold annually by the entire sales force of the average dealership in the United States.
According to industry sources, Jackson's performance has brought him an annual income of at least $300,000, a sprawling $700,000 home in Landover and enough money to buy his 25 percent stake in Brown Lincoln-Mercury, the flagship dealership of the 33-store Mid-Atlantic Cars Inc. empire.
Jackson doesn't like to discuss his personal finances: "It gives people the wrong impression," he said.
But, clearly, the youngster who once shined shoes to buy the clothes on his back has become somewhat of a phenomenon in a business where few salespeople last longer than the products they sell.
Jackson's success invites a look into the life and mind of a supersalesman -- a self-proclaimed psychologist who can read people better than many mental-health professionals, a commercial St. Sebastian who can take the slings and arrows of rejection and still hang on to close the next deal.
To understand what makes Jackson tick, The Washington Post spent two weeks interviewing him, his competitors, his family, colleagues, friends and business associates, even a specialist in the motivation and development of salespeople.
The result is a portrait of a man for whom selling is life itself. Jackson is always "on," always ready to make a sale. He sees every occasion -- funeral, wedding, high-school graduation -- as a chance to connect with potential customers.
Jackson, says Jeanne Greenberg, head of a Princeton, N.J., firm that specializes in developing salespeople, is "a high-energy, classic type, who has 'drive' coming out of his nose."
If he buys a suit, Jackson is likely to leave his business card at the clothing store.
If someone drops a car off at his dealership's service center, Jackson might offer the customer a ride to work -- in a brand-new Lincoln or Mercury, of course. He has a way of turning these "rides" into customer test drives that lead to sales.
"Many customers in the service department are mad with their cars," Jackson explained. "They're ripe for a sale, particularly if the car being serviced is three years old or so. The idea is to get them into a new car and behind the wheel. I've sold lots of cars that way," he said.
Any customer falling for that sales technique has not seen the last of Jackson -- not by a long shot.
"Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up," Jackson said. "I believe in long-term follow-up. Selling the car is only the beginning of the selling job. You gotta sell the customer on you and your dealership. You gotta make that customer believe that you're going to be there to take care of any problems, and you gotta take care of those problems," he said in his trademark rapid-fire, evangelical speech.
"None of this sell-you forget-you stuff," Jackson continued. "That's stupid. You gotta build a repeat business, a network of buyers. Yeah, and if those buyers can't come to you, you gotta go to them... . "
"That's the way I work," Jackson continued. "That's the way I do things. You ask anybody about Freddye 'Action' Jackson. They'll tell you."
"You ask anybody about Freddye" is one of Jackson's favorite lines, often repeated with the granite confidence that any inquiries into his background will yield positive answers. His other refrains include, "I love people," and "I thank the Lord," and "I take care of my customers."
Jackson also takes care of himself. He habitually drapes his five-foot, seven-inch frame in tasteful business suits, purchased by his wife, almost in conscious counter-statement to the stereotypical image of the flashy car salesman. In his rare quiet moments, he is ministerial in demeanor, befitting his staunch black Baptist background and his current religious state of being what he calls "a saved, born-again Christian."
But when Jackson is in action, he's a wonder to behold -- variously pleading and Napoleonic, accommodating and unyielding. He is a buzzing oxymoron, high-pressure in a low-pressure sort of a way.
"Totally ego-driven," said Greenberg, commenting on Jackson after being given excerpts from interviews and other relevant information. "An ego-driven salesman with empathy for his customers. A rare bird. The biggest thrill in his life is when someone says 'yes,' " Greenberg said.
"Freddye lives with selling every waking moment," said Joe Girard, owner of Northeast Ford in Washington, and one of the few Jackson competitors willing to say anything on the record about Jackson, good or bad.
"He's aggressive, and by that, I don't mean he's out to get somebody," Girard said. "It's all about selling cars and making money. If you're good at it, you live it. You breathe it. It becomes your lifestyle. Freddye's good at it," Girard said.
One Jackson competitor, who asked not to be named, said: "I'm not going to say anything about that man, or do anything that will send one more customer to his dealership."
Jackson can be astounding.
How many people, for example, would have invited a reporter to a family funeral -- where intrafamily tensions, fueled by grief, are apt to surface and explode?
"It'll be okay," Jackson said. "I checked with Marsha," he said of his second and current wife. "She said it's okay -- okay for you to come out to the house after the services, too."
Marsha Jackson, a graduate student specializing in employee relations, was patient with the idea -- up to a point. At her old family home in Baltimore, she found a corner seat in search of some peace and quiet, which did not last long.
A small crowd of people gathered around her husband, who was standing nearby talking, joking, expressing condolences and fielding an occasional question about cars.
A reporter, trying to make small talk, asked Marsha Jackson about her life as a mother, wife and student.
"It's not easy. Studying, working, keeping a house -- it's a lot," she said.
"And don't forget," she said, nodding toward her husband, "I am married to him."
Jackson was always driven by some invisible motor, according to those who know him best.
"He was always pushy, always doing something, always wanting to get out and do things to make money for himself, and for us, too," said Jackson's 81-year-old mother, Gaither.
Those things included shining shoes, delivering papers, working in stores -- on weekends and school nights, much to the detriment of Jackson's academic performance at what is now called the Phelps Career Senior High School in Washington.
Jackson, who took courses in barbering and construction at Phelps, said that he was an average student. "I should have been studying when I was out working, but if I wanted a pair of shoes or a suit, I had to go out and get it myself. We didn't have a lot of money," he said of his family.
Jackson's mother worked as a cleaning woman at D.C. General Hospital and his father worked in the rail yards at Union Station. The couple, who had four boys and five girls, separated in 1945, seven years before Jackson graduated from Phelps, the last of his formal education.
The girls lived with their mother. The boys, including Freddye, lived with their father. "And if you could have seen my father, you would have seen Freddye in him," said the Rev. Augustus P. "Gus" Jackson Jr., Jackson's older and only surviving brother.
Freddye "Action" Jackson, who has legally changed his name to include the commercial moniker, is respectful of his father, but critical of what he said was his dad's inability "to hold onto money and to put all of those dollars together" in a useful pile.
Gus Jackson praises his father for providing them with a house of their own in a time and city when few blacks enjoyed the privilege of home ownership -- which brings up another point.
Both Jackson brothers, and other members of their family, assiduously avoid any discussions of racism and how it might have affected their lives.
"What you see in Freddye is not resident in Freddye alone," said Gus Jackson, commenting on his brother's ability to sell a car to anyone. "If you would see all of the family together at any time, you would see that we never talk about 'folks who kept us down.' We are a proud family, and we always talk about what we can do," Gus Jackson said.
Freddye Jackson, a short bulldog of a man who still retains some of the athletic build from his days as a rookie professional boxer, put it this way: "How is worrying about who hates me gonna help me sell cars?"
It is that single-mindedness that has propelled Jackson to the top of the sales heap in a 12-to-14-hour-a-day, often seven-days-a-week, ego-bruising business, said Bob Long, owner of Long Fence in Capitol Heights.
Long, who once favored Cadillacs, began buying Lincolns from Jackson nearly 20 years ago, when Jackson was starting out as a salesman at what was then called East-West Lincoln-Mercury in Hyattsville. Long was window-shopping cars on a day when he thought he wouldn't be bothered by salesmen. But Jackson was there with his fold-up table, displaying business cards that read "Freddye 'Action' Jackson, Salesman of the Nation." Long did not buy a car that Sunday, but Jackson delivered a Lincoln to his office on Monday for one of those "Action" Jackson test drives. Long bought the car Wednesday, and now recommends Jackson to his family and friends.
"If there ever was a person for whom the sun shines every day, it's for that man," Long said of Jackson.
"Freddye doesn't know anything about bad news, about the economy being down or anything like that. He's very loyal to his company, very loyal to his product and very loyal to his customers," said Long, who uses Jackson as an example to motivate his own salespeople.
That's somewhat ironic, considering that Jackson believes the motivation it takes to sell can't be taught.
"You've got to want it. You've got to be willing to do what you have to do to please that customer, because that's where your next sale is coming from," he said.
Jackson might have added that any good salesperson has to have an insatiable desire for approval, another word for what he calls "love." Indeed, according to his friends, family and colleagues, Jackson appears to want approval more than anything. A sale for him is a confirmation of his goodness. That kind of attitude can make rejection painful, and rejection is a daily fact of life in the auto-retail business.
How does Jackson put up with it? Simple. He rejects rejection. A "no" is not a "no" to him. It is simply an opportunity to get a "yes."
Said Jackson: "You have to find a reason to overcome that 'No.' You can't let it affect you in a negative way. That will ruin your attitude for the next sale. If you go into the next sale wearing a 'no' on your face, you'll lose that customer."
Cathy Orme of Cabin John, whose husband Ted wrote an article about Jackson 10 years ago, can vouch for Jackson's persistence. "Freddye has been calling us every year trying to get us to buy a car," she said.
It is difficult to figure out where reality begins and hype ends with Jackson, mostly because he seems to stay hyper about everything, including religion, which has won him friends and also landed him in trouble.
Back in August 1989, for example, Jackson started a Christian Members Buyers Plan at Brown-Lincoln Mercury. The plan was designed to give discounts to people who could prove that they attended a Christian church. The plan had been in operation for nine months, with virtually no advertising, before the media caught wind of it and raised questions about its fairness.
Jackson was both blessed and baffled -- blessed because the resulting publicity brought him loads of unanticipated business, and baffled because he has spent so much of his life talking about his "love" for people and their "love" for him, he could not believe the charges of antisemitism and religious bigotry that were leveled against him.
"How can they say that about me," a visibly anguished Jackson asked a reporter. "I wasn't trying to discriminate against anybody. I was just trying to do something with the churches and to sell some cars," he said.
"He believes totally in the rightness of what he is doing, and he felt that it was a personal attack on him to suggest that he was engaging in bigotry," said David Friedman, Washington Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. Friedman met with Jackson last week to tell him why Jews and many Christians, who oppose mixing religion and business, found the plan offensive.
"I don't think that he was persuaded the program is wrong, but I think he understands the depth of our feelings," Friedman said. "I think he will drop the program, because the Freddye Jackson I met is not a person who wants to be remembered as coming up with a discriminatory plan," Friedman said.
Jackson said he would drop the plan, or at least change it to make it clear that everyone can participate. "I wasn't trying to step on anybody's toes," he said.
Back on Georgia Avenue in Northwest, people still remember the F.T. Jackson, as he called himself then, who used to give free haircuts to poor kids and senior citizens. "Freddye was always doing stuff like that," said Silas "Big Man" Simpson, who used to cut hair with Jackson at what is now "Big Man's Barber Shop."
Jackson was sincere about the charity, but with Jackson, charity, like everything else, is good business, Simpson said. "People loved Freddye. Our shop was always full," Simpson said.
But when the business changed, when folks who used to get haircuts every week started wearing Afros, Jackson changed, too. "There weren't enough people getting haircuts for me to stay in the trade," Jackson said. "I had to do something else."
So, he drove cabs and operated a carry-out restaurant. But neither the action nor the money in those businesses was quick enough or good enough. Approval came in small, greasy doses in the restaurant, and seldom came at all in the cabs.
Jackson said that God led him to car sales and that, happily, he has been doing God's work ever since.