DALLAS — Looking out of his glass office near the corner of Main and Harwood streets, University of North Texas System Chancellor Lee Jackson can see the old Municipal Building where he started his career in Dallas more than 40 years ago.
Back then, he was a "very junior" assistant in the city manager's office, tackling nuisances like high weeds and loose dogs or responding to protesters at council meetings.
He moved up in that office and went on to serve as a state representative for a decade and 15 years as Dallas County judge.
And now he's wrapping up a career in public service after serving as UNT's chancellor, where one of his main charges recently has been renovating the Municipal Building so it can one day house the university's new law school.
Jackson will announce Thursday that he's retiring from University of North Texas after 15 years leading the system. In the role, Jackson oversees the operations of UNT, UNT Dallas, UNT Health Science Center and the UNT Dallas College of Law.
"I had no idea my career would come full circle to this place," said Jackson, 67, a native of Oak Cliff. "I could have been an ambassador and traveled, maybe. But really, I never thought I'd live anywhere other than North Texas. I just instinctively know how it works and doesn't work."
Often working out of the spotlight, Jackson helped usher many major developments in the Dallas area and pushed for regional approaches to the area's biggest challenges, such as transportation and pollution.
As Dallas County judge, he was credited with revamping the juvenile justice system and stepping up efforts to address child abuse. He successfully lobbied for the creation of the North Texas Tollway Authority so the money generated could be spent easing the Dallas area's traffic woes. His support was the final push that led to the creation of the Sixth Floor Museum.
"In many ways, Lee Jackson is our Dirk Nowitzki of local government — scoring points every day and making that shot," Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said. "He's a problem solver and bridge builder."
Jackson took the helm of UNT when few university leaders were non-educators, a growing trend that was criticized at the time.
He oversaw the transition of UNT-Dallas from a satellite location to its own institution as well as expansion of both the main campus in Denton and the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, which added a pharmacy school. The system also added a satellite campus in Frisco in 2016. Enrollment across the system increased from 27,769 to 43,384 during Jackson's tenure.
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said Jackson has been critical as the two work to establish the new law school. That school's fate is expected to be known this summer as the American Bar Association reconsiders its accreditation after sending the school's application back for review.
"We've had our — shall I say — tough discussions over the years, but without exception, he's come out in full force to build an institution that is for the betterment of Dallas and all North Texas," West said. "Lee is respected across higher education because of what he's been able to accomplish."
Jackson was inspired to work in government as a teenager after seeing President Lyndon B. Johnson struggle on television as the country was divided over the Vietnam War.
In college, he discovered local government was more his style, as he was more "a workhorse than a show horse." He was drawn to the quiet way most civil servants simply applied their skills to solve the problems facing their communities.
As divisive as the Vietnam War was, Jackson said he still remembers how united Americans were in finding ways to work together to solve problems. Had the climate been as divisive as it is today, Jackson isn't so sure he would have spent his life in politics.
During his time as a legislator — 1977 to 1987 — Jackson was known for his intense research to understand the issues facing the state. Texas Monthly named him one of the 10 best legislators in 1983.
"He'd arrive at the Capitol at 4 or 5 in the morning and just start reading every detail with sincere fascination," said former Rep. Gwyn Shea, who served with him in the House.
Shea, who went on to work with Jackson at Dallas County, is now one of his bosses as a regent on the UNT board. She said Jackson's leadership was key to guiding the system through its growing pains, which included updating its financial system for better reporting.
"Even if you looked the world over, he was the perfect person for the job — his thoughtfulness, his political know-how and his strategic way of thinking," Shea said.
Among Jackson's proudest accomplishments is helping to shift philosophies within UNT.
Instead of focusing only on boosting enrollment and graduation rates, the university is holding itself accountable for how well it prepares students to have successful lives beyond graduation. That means bringing more real-world, hands-on experiences to them, something many in higher education once looked down upon as only necessary for vocational schools.
"Our job is to find out what things we can help them experience while they are with us that enhance their chances of lifetime success," Jackson said.
Of course, there have also been missteps and goals not reached.
Jackson was among area leaders pushing for Dallas' failed bid to host the 2012 Olympics. UNT fell under criticism in 2014 after a state investigation found a "coordinated effort" that led to it improperly receive an extra $75.6 million in state funding over a decade. And there had been some sudden replacements of campus presidents, including those said to have clashed with the chancellor.
But Jackson doesn't like to talk about disappointments or regrets, saying only it's all helped him realize that sometimes a good person can still be the wrong fit for a job and that other opportunities always come along.
"One reason I like baseball is that if you hit three out of 10, you go to the Hall of Fame," Jackson said. "I've hit better than .300 with all my major initiatives, but there are a few that got away."
Jackson's contract runs through Aug. 31. Regents are expected to develop a search process for his replacement soon.
Neal Smatresk, president of the main UNT campus in Denton, praised Jackson for his work, adding that he's not interested in taking over the chancellor position himself.
"I sincerely hope the board will engage the presidents in the conversations" with future candidates, Smatresk said. "All of the presidents would be looking for more of partners than bosses."
Jackson doesn't know what his next venture will be. After a short break, he plans to jump back into something else he hopes will help North Texas.
"It's fun to know this region and love it as much as I do," Jackson said. "I'm very fortunate."
Denton Record-Chronicle reporter Jenna Duncan contributed to this report.