Gerri Betz-Jackson has always had a strong sense of intuition. While a feisty mother of six, real estate developer, philanthropist and political candidate, she made millions from land development and trucking enterprises. But, back in the 1960s and ‘70s, she was just as good at making biscuits and volunteering at her children’s school as other moms, says her daughter, Denise Sudol. The only difference was, she had to run off to meet the mayor or the trucking commission to fight unfair regulations.
“She set the bar really high,” Sudol says. “She had to force her way in a man’s world. Instead of being cowed by something, she sees it as a challenge. She’s going to come out swinging.”
In 1960, at the age of 27, she took a swing at enterprise and never looked back. On a hunch, she assumed payments on a tractor-trailer that was going into default. Through several years, the petite entrepreneur, with a resemblance to Annette Funicello, turned it into a successful fleet of refrigerated trucks that hauled poultry, seafood and produce across the Eastern Seaboard. Betz-Jackson made hundreds of calls a day to generate business, scrubbed the trucks once a week and studied diesel engines to help diagnose and fix the trucks when they broke down.
Photo from 1972 of Gerri Betz-Jackson campaigning for House of Representatives District 18.
She has had many wins over the years. In the 1960s, she helped organize the North Florida Surfing Association and encouraged them to work with the city to provide safe places for swimmers and surfers to coexist. She helped City Councilman Joe Carlucci save the old bridge running from Heckscher Drive to Blount Island to be used as a fishing pier. In 1972, she protested outside the Jacksonville police station, where she marched with a loud speaker to raise officers’ paychecks. Florida had appropriated the money for that use, but Jacksonville hadn’t implemented it. City officials nearly had Betz-Jackson arrested for demonstrating without a permit, she says, and told her she was “making a fool of herself.”
“Well, I’m not the only one,” she retorted. “How long do you intend to hold the officers’ money?”
Years after the event, a Jacksonville Sherriff’s Office officer showed up at her door holding a picture of her standing outside the precinct with a mega phone. “He said, ‘We were moving out of the building, and we thought you might like to have this picture Mrs. Betz. You have been our pin up girl all these years.’ I couldn’t believe it. It was a picture of me holding a sign outside protesting,” recalls Betz-Jackson.
The SS United States luxury liner suite designed by Gerri Betz-Jackson and her daughter Trecia. It was Betz’s hope to bring the historic ship to Jacksonville as a tourist destination.
But she has had her share of failures too. In 1972, she also lost her campaign for state representative. There were a couple of other bumps along the way. But the one that stung the most was in 1991, when she met resistance to her proposal to bring the S.S. United States to Jacksonville. Betz-Jackson had dreamed of converting the historic luxury cruise liner, known as “America’s Flagship” and one of the first of its kind, into a history and maritime heritage museum to promote tourism. But she has never let defeat stop her from doing what she thought was right.
Gerri Betz-Jackson was born with what she describes as a gift from God.
“I plan never to be a silent part of the silent majority again,” Betz-Jackson told a newspaper reporter on election night in 1972.
Now age 83, she says she has never consider herself a “women’s libber,” but does believe in individual achievement.
“Women still hadn’t broken through that glass ceiling,” Betz-Jackson says. “You had to let men speak for you to keep the peace. But sometimes you had to stir it up.”
So what was the driving force behind this spitfire?
“It’s called self-determination,” she says.
One of the youngest of 14 children born on a southern Georgia farm, she was forced to grow up fast. Her mother died when she was 10, and she had to raise her 6-year-old sister.
“My mother worked herself to death,” Betz-Jackson says. “I became the mother of the house.”
The family lived precariously on the sales of cotton crops and tobacco, which were often destroyed by boll weevils or blue mold. They hauled in water from a well and boiled it in a huge kettle to supply the house and clean clothes. They didn’t get electricity until after World War II.
Gerri Betz-Jackson protesting in downtown Jacksonville, advocating for a pay raise for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
“I’ve had a good life, but my childhood was hard and we were poor,” Betz-Jackson says. “I think it taught me how to care for others.”
Her father died when she was 15, and she went to live with an older brother in Jacksonville. She married young, began having children and moved back to Georgia. But she refused to repeat the deprivations of her childhood.
“I decided I didn’t want to be poor the rest of my life,” Betz-Jackson says.
She took an accounting job at a lingerie company, where she earned $28.45 a week after taxes. Of that, $10 went to pay the babysitter. Finally, with money of her own, she made her first investment — 60 acres in southern Georgia. She paid the bank $6.25 a week and planted pine trees on the property. As the years passed, the family harvested and sold the trees, then used the money to buy more land and plant more trees.
The Neff Mansion on historic Fort George Island was once called home by the Betz family.
There pretty much isn’t anything Gerri Betz-Jackson hasn’t tried over the past eight decades of life. Inventive and committed to figuring things out, she designed a tobacco harvester to help a friend reduce the labor-intensive tobacco curing process. Later, she built an ozone generator to kill bacteria from a discharged water from Painters Poultry’s processing facility. She was also a producer of “Thread of Life,” a 1968 documentary about a little girl who had successful open-heart surgery to repair a hole in her heart.
In 1967, she and her second husband, Antoine Betz, moved their family into a castle-like mansion on Fort George Island, near Kingsley Plantation. Known as the Neff House, the Tudor Revival style home sits on the highest point in Duval County. The Betz’s rewired the house and added a kitchen wing, garage and swimming pool.
“Those were really good times,” Betz-Jackson says, recalling the amazing views from the home’s brick observation tower. “We always had a house full of people.”
During her time in Jacksonville, Betz-Jackson owned more than a dozen companies, including the refrigerated trucking business, Abele Driver Leasing Service, Sister’s Creek Fish Camp on the Intracoastal Waterway and Pirates Cove Fish Camp on the St. Johns River. As a real estate developer, she directed the infrastructure for The Greens at Julington Creek and also owned Cherokee Cove II, which developed and financed homes for low-income, working class people on the northside.
Gerri Betz-Jackson’s children gave her this armor door knocker as a gift one year. It was the perfect welcome to their castle-like home on Fort George Island.
By 2003, Betz-Jackson had reached an age when she wanted to paint and find peace and quiet. Tired of living in the city, she sold 548 acres near Pumpkin Hill Creek to the City of Jacksonville for almost $8 million. It became the Betz-Tiger Point Preserve, which has stunning views of tidal creeks and saltwater marsh, horseback riding and hiking trials, canoeing and fishing.
“I wanted it to be something that the people could enjoy,” she says.
Betz-Jackson also sold 540 acres to the St. Johns River Water Management District, which became part of the Thomas Creek Conservation Area, and donated 5 acres to help build the Normandy Boulevard Sports Complex.
Gerri Betz-Jackson in Otter Springs on the Suwannee River in Trenton, FL. She recently sold 600 acres to the State of Florida at a discounted price to preserve the land and waters.
After selling and donating much of her land in Duval County, she and her present husband, Arnold Jackson, bought 820 acres at Otter Springs near the Suwanee River in Trenton, about 90 miles southwest of Jacksonville. They have since sold about 600 acres of it, at a discounted price, to the state.
“I have been blessed to live in a time and a country where anything is possible,” Betz-Jackson says. “God has been there for me all the way, and he still is here and where he leads me I will follow.”
Gerri Betz-Jackson has always had a strong connection with God, “Some people call it intuition, clairvoyance. I call it a gift,” she says.
Since she was a child, she has repeatedly experienced premonitions which she describes as a powerful gut feeling. A recent experience at her home and retreat in Otter Springs really hit home the importance of listening to the universe with more than your ears.
Aerial view of the Betz-Tiger Point Preserve, named for Betz who sold the property for preservation to the city of Jacksonville.
It was dusk and Betz-Jackson and three dozen people were studying a devotional book in the lodge at Otter Springs.
“All the sudden this inner voice, God within me, said to turn off the lights,” Betz-Jackson says. “I could see something outside that looked list a mist or fog. But it was smoke.”
She looked out the back door, saw the southwest corner of the building on fire, and yelled at everyone to get out. They all escaped safely.
“That was God,” she said, noting that no one had smelled the smoke. They hadn’t even seen the smoke until she turned out the lights.
“It has happened so many times over my life I don’t try to keep track of it,” Betz-Jackson says. “I think God has given us certain abilities and gifts. I’ve learned to listen to it.”