Dr. Dennis Jackson, otherwise known as Den, worked at the University of New Mexico Student Health Center for 40 years. That being the case, he’s somewhat of a legend around Albuquerque; many have visited him for medical advice and know his characteristic look from seeing him on and around campus.

Den was born on May 6, 1941 and raised in Montgomery, Alabama. He has five brothers, as he’ll sing-songily tell you the order: Biff, Den, Steve, Robert and Randy. His father, Frank, was also a physician (as was his father before him), and his mother Kathleen a nutritionist. They met at Bellevue in New York City while studying in their respective fields. He can recall historic moments growing up, like the civil rights marches in Montgomery with Martin Luther King Jr. and play dates at his friend’s house whose nanny was Rosa Parks. Den attended Vanderbilt University for medical school then eventually made his way west to find more progressive culture after a lifetime of witnessing much racism in the south.

Den is a published author of his book, “Azure Hearse,” which documents the time between Vanderbilt and his eventual settling down in Albuquerque.

As one of Den’s six children, I know his legend extends beyond that wild hairdo and doctor of many. To me, he’s the ultimate family man — unwavering in his love and support for his large kinship. He made sure us kids always knew the value of our cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents and siblings. He’d take us south every summer to see everyone in Alabama and splash at the beach in Florida. If he saw wrongdoing, he would loudly call it out, whether it be racism, homophobia, houselessness; he has long lasting friendships with many houseless folks around Albuquerque for whom he always makes it a point to give money and have a chat.

These days, Den lives a quiet life in retirement with his loving partner Karen and their little dogs. He frequents Frontier restaurant with his regular order of green chile stew and reads all the papers every day. Karen volunteers her time at the local animal shelter, and they always have animals in most need of care in their home where they tenderly nurse them back to health and make sure they get adopted.

I feel incredibly lucky to have such a dad as Den. He always tells me he loves me and he’s saved my life more than once — most notably, twice: in the summer of ‘98, while walking home from the Student Health Center together, he stopped to chat with his friend on her bicycle in front of the SUB. A loud crack came out of the sky, and without knowing what it was, he grabbed my hand and pulled me to the ground, saving me from half a cottonwood tree that spontaneously broke off its trunk in a rare occurrence called Summer Limb Fall. The second time, a Delta 737 plane was flying us back from Alabama through Dallas-Fort Worth and the landing gear failed. Everyone on the plane panicked as we went down, except for Den, who instructed the passengers to sit down, buckle up and shut up. He was hailed in the Journal for his heroic acts in getting everyone off the plane safely to the bunker that day. And so he’s gotten so many of us safely to our next destination, time and time again.

Happy 80th, dad. You promised to stick around for my daughter Luella’s 21st birthday in 21 years, and to that I’ll hold you true.

Chandley Jackson