Mark Jackson ’87 has made a career of the unexpected; in fact, he’s made two. After graduating from Illinois State University’s College of Business with a degree in finance, Jackson had no plans for a career in the military or law enforcement, but both professions turned out to be prominent in his life story.

“I wanted to be a portfolio manager and started working at a bank in Rantoul but was dissatisfied,” Jackson said. “So, I went with a buddy to test for the state police.”

It worked out pretty well. Jackson, 56, spent his career with the Illinois State Police and retired in 2015 after 25 years of service. While serving the citizens of the state of Illinois, he was also busy serving his country in the Army National Guard. That too worked out pretty well. So well that since April, he’s been known as Maj. Gen. Mark Jackson, deputy commanding general of operations, Army National Guard, First United States Army, based in Rock Island. Not bad for a kid from Rantoul who was worried he wouldn’t be able to afford college.

“I came out of high school in 1983 and went to Parkland College in Champaign because my parents could only afford college for two years,” Jackson said. “I saw a commercial on TV for the National Guard about owing them one weekend a month, and they’d pay for college. I thought that was a no-brainer and went to a recruiter in Urbana and signed up.”

Jackson eventually found his way to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), first at the University of Illinois. It was an opportunity that put an otherwise unaffordable college degree within his grasp

“I thought after the first year I’d move on, but I decided on the ROTC program at ISU and transferred,” he said. “I tell people that 38 years later I’m still trying to work off my college debt.”

At Illinois State, Jackson said he loved the campus and found his passion in his ROTC classes. Army Lt. Col. Kraig Kline, a professor of military science at Illinois State, called Jackson a humble and generous person. In military parlance, earning one, two, or multiple stars qualifies you as a general officer. That makes Jackson the first general officer in the Illinois State ROTC program’s history.

Major General Mark Jackson photo
Maj. Gen. Mark Jackson ’87 is deputy commanding general for operations for the Army National Guard, First U.S. Army in Rock Island.

“They told me I was the first ISU ROTC alum to get that first star and now the second star, I was like, ‘No way,’” the modest Jackson said.

Kline said that despite his demanding schedule Jackson is generous with his time and continues to mentor Illinois State students. The passion Jackson showed for his ROTC classes helped lay the foundation for a long career in service, but Kline said his family deserves much of the credit.  

“I would like to think that the military cadre here during his time instilled in him the foundational skills needed to succeed in his military service,” Kline said. “But, you can take nothing away from the hard work and sacrifices made by he and his family for all these years.”

Jackson enjoys returning to campus when the opportunity arises whether it be in the classroom or being the guest speaker at the Commissioning Ceremony as he was last May, which coincided with the program’s 40th anniversary.

“It was my fourth time to speak, and I really enjoy coming back,” he said. “I have also taught a couple of classes and really enjoy that, too. I love anytime I can come back to the University and try to get back and give back as often as I can.”

Jackson said while serving in the National Guard he was hooked early by the friendships, the opportunities, and by an abundance of the thing that he had wanted in the first place: education.

“There were so many opportunities for all the education I could get,” he said. “I never intended to make a career of it. I thought I’d stay until it wasn’t fun or they didn’t need me anymore.”

Three things happened that showed he had been in the right place all along: He was promoted to the rank of colonel; he was promoted again, this time to brigadier general, a one-star rank that requires a presidential nomination and senate confirmation; and on April 1, 2021, he received a second star with a promotion to major general and appointment to his current position.

Jackson and his wife, Deanna, a retired teacher, live in Frankfort in Will County. Their son, Tyler, 27, is a high school history teacher. Jackson’s service has taken him all over the world, with only two continents left to see—Australia and Antarctica.

“We’ll probably do those on our own,” he said of future vacation plans. “I told my wife: ‘Let’s go feed the penguins.’”

Jackson served combat tours in Kuwait and Iraq and was part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the global war on terrorism. In addition, police work put him in dangerous spots over the years. As a leader of young soldiers, his advice for current Redbirds is straightforward.

“Two rules that have helped me through two tours of combat duty and working as a state trooper in Chicago: Be safe, and have fun,” he said.

All the years of service have given him pause to reflect and take stock.

“It’s a true blessing,” he said. “And, if this is my last gig, it’s been a blessing and an honor to serve.”