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Who Stole Denver Burglar Alarm?

Stew Jackson let one of Denver's oldest family-owned businesses slip away, but his bands play on.

Stew Jackson rarely worked with his parents, though he did go around to businesses and turn off lights and crank up the awnings. Once he helped his dad catch two robbers breaking into a safe: He knocked on the back door, which sent the crooks running through the front door, where John Jackson, armed with a gun, apprehended them.

By the 1940s, the company was protecting more than 1,400 businesses. The manpower drain created by World War II forced the company to develop more modern, electronics-based systems, so Sara began studying electrical-engineering books and apprenticing with electricians to learn the ropes. DBA stayed ahead of the high-tech curve with an assortment of modern talismans such as wired doors, windows protected with foil, vents with electronic gates, and photoelectric eyes.

The company was one of the first to install motion detectors, which flooded a room with "electrical cobwebs" to thwart prowlers. In 1954 the company added one of the nation's first ultra-high-frequency radio operations. After three astronauts were killed in a fire during an Apollo training simulation in 1967, DBA retrofitted the smoke detectors in NASA's moon-orbiting laboratories. In 1970 DBA developed a video electron detector, a closed-circuit television monitor that could detect movement when it crossed its screen. It was reported at the time to be the first such device in the world.

But Sara and John Jackson made enemies as well. On August 24, 1946, someone bombed the Jacksons' central station, through which all the alarms were channeled. Newspaper accounts suggested that criminals the Jacksons had caught were responsible. The family's home was bombed three times. Once, an explosive misfired and blew out the windows of the home next door. One that hit, in 1944, "blew out half the kitchen and part of the second floor," says Stew Jackson, who was eight at the time. (No one was injured in the blast.)

Young Stew did not dream of taking over the company. He dreamed of being a ballplayer, then a musician. His father, a disciplinarian, forced him to start piano lessons at age eight. He was made to practice fifteen to twenty minutes in the morning before school, the same at lunchtime, and forty minutes more in the evening. His sisters were enlisted to monitor him.

"Music kept me together," Jackson says. "Otherwise, I'd have ended up in the joint."

The only type of piano training available at the time was classical; Jackson's first introduction to jazz came a few years later, when Norman Grantz came to town with his Jazz at the Philharmonic, a large band featuring such legends as Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie. "It blew me away," says Jackson.

Soon afterward, Sara bought him a tenor sax from a pawnshop, and by seventh grade, he was playing.

A year later, in 1949, John Jackson died of a heart attack. Stew never got over his father's death. "It turned me into one belligerent son of a bitch, just looking for trouble," he says. He took up boxing to deal with his aggression and liked the idea that in the ring, "you have to rely on yourself." He also continued to play sax, especially in Denver's black clubs. No one minded the little white kid with his horn. In fact, many Five Points residents had known Stew's father; he'd been their dentist.

Back then, the sixteen-year-old had his pick of places. At the elegant Rossonian, Jackson says, he once sat in with Count Basie's band. Further down Welton, he played at the small club upstairs at the Rhythm Record Shop. But for Jackson, the best place to be was Lil's, an after-hours club where he could do a little drinking on the side.

Jackson graduated from high school in 1954, then signed on for a stint with the Navy Conservatory, where he wound up playing with the house band for the U.S.S. Intrepid as it toured the Mediterranean. He spent his final year in the service in San Francisco, were he took a few engineering classes at the University of California at Berkeley. He returned to Colorado in 1958 and picked up a business degree at CU in 1962. By then, Jackson says, he was ready to assume his place in the family business--but he also put together a band and began playing regularly.

Jackson began his career at DBA as a salesman. By the late Sixties, he was his mother's right hand. Under Stew, the company helped design the alarm system for the Tower of London. In 1972 a ring of five DBA repairmen and technicians were arrested for stealing $150,000 in cash and goods from the homes they were assigned to protect, but other than that, things sailed smoothly. By 1975, DBA had integrated its modern electronics with its old-fashioned patroling. Computers were installed at 1955 Sherman, and the company essentially employed its own civilian police force, with 100 armed guards roaming the streets in radio-equipped cars and trucks. DBA was the third-largest independent alarm company in the U.S.

"Even though a lot of people thought of him as a playboy and not interested in anything other than his bands, his actions were important in keeping the company afloat," Mel Opel says of Jackson.

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