Using the Trivia Bee to Give the Gift of Literacy

Originally appeared in The Record March 10, 2018

By Jack Jacobs / Special to The Record

My grandfather, Michael Joseph Jacob Abdallah, dreamed big.

His dream for a better life led him to leave his village in the mountains of Lebanon, travel with his new wife across the Atlantic on a cattle boat to Vera Cruz, Mexico, traverse the Rio Grande and arrive in Stockton not long before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

He dreamed of being a businessman when he and his brothers (all with the same middle names) opened their own east Stockton grocery store only to have their account with Bank of Italy mixed up with that of another grocery-store-owning Abdallah family. So my grandfather and his brothers went to court to change the family name, dropping Abdallah in favor of Jacobs.

He did all this while being unable to read or write English.

Sometimes I wonder, for all his accomplishments, how far he could have gone, how much of an entrepreneur my grandfather could have become, had he been able to read and write. I cannot recall ever seeing a book or a newspaper in my grandparents’ house. In hindsight, I find that very sad. Also in hindsight, I find myself so grateful having grown up in a home full of books where my parents instilled in their children a great love for the written word.

That, in part, is why literacy is a passion of mine.

I suspect my nine colleagues on the board of the Library and Literacy Foundation for San Joaquin County also grew up in environments where literacy was of prime importance. The foundation, a nonprofit, tax exempt organization, was first incorporated in 1990 with the specific purpose of funding the Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library’s Adult Literacy program, and since has expanded to support family and community literacy initiatives and assist with sustaining the Stockton Library’s book budget.

For the past 27 years, the Library and Literacy Foundation for San Joaquin County has hosted the annual Trivia Bee Fundraiser. This year’s Bee will be held April 27 at Stockton Arena. First billed as “an entertaining clash of wits,” the Trivia Bee pits 30 or more three-person teams in cut-throat competition to answer questions that only the trivia-minded probably know the answers to. This year’s theme, “California Dreamers: Builders, Entertainers, & Entrepreneurs,” examines all those individuals whose exploits contributed to the building of our California family.

During the past year, proceeds from the Trivia Bee have helped the Foundation give away $2,000 in grade-appropriate books to school children at The Record’s Family Day in the Park. Last December, Trivia Bee revenue helped underwrite the two SkyDome Planetarium shows at the Caesar Chavez Library and Manteca Public Library. Also this past year, thanks to the success of the 2017 Trivia Bee, the Language Literacy Center at University of the Pacific received a $2,750 grant from the Foundation to help youth who have language-literacy disorders.

It is hoped this year’s Trivia Bee will raise enough money to allow the Foundation to continue its work.

My grandfather eventually left the family grocery to take a job as a salesman with S&W Fine Foods. He knew green grocers Samuel Sussman and his brothers, Gustav and Samuel Wormser, well enough to pitch them his idea, his dream, of selling baby food in little glass jars or bottles.

Their rejection of his brainchild being unworkable did not sit well. He summoned my father to the house to dictate a letter calling his bosses “jackasses” for not listening to him. And when my dad protested, “Pop, you can’t call Mr. S. and Mr. W. a couple of jackasses,” my grandfather ordered his son, “Put it down!”

I often wonder if Mr. Sussman, and the Wormser brothers would have paid more heed to my grandfather had he been literate. All I know “for sure” is an anecdote my father told me years ago: When my grandfather retired after a 40-year career with S&W Fine Foods, Mr. S. and both Mr. Ws. came to his retirement dinner. As they presented him with a gold watch, they turned to other salesmen in attendance and rebuked them: “Here’s Mike Jacobs, who can’t read or write,” they began, “who only has the little mom and pop stores in town for his accounts. And he’s been outselling all of you jackasses!”

Jack Jacobs worked for The Record for more than 41 years, primarily as the layout planner, before retiring in 2017.

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