Ken Jacob brings passion for education to 44th District election

Sunday, October 28, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:41 p.m. CDT, Sunday, October 28, 2012
Democrat Ken Jacob is running for the Missouri House of Representatives' 44th District seat against Caleb Rowden.

COLUMBIA — Ken Jacob has been competing his whole life, whether in sports or in politics.

This time, Jacob is in a race he hopes will return him to the Missouri legislature after an eight-year hiatus. A Columbia Democrat, Jacob served first in the Missouri House of Representatives from 1983 to 1996, then he completed two terms as a state senator from 1996 to 2004. Term limits forced him out.

But Jacob didn't leave public service entirely. He was appointed chairman of the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission and worked as executive director of the State, County, Municipal Employees Council 72. He also served as general counsel in the state auditor's office under former Auditor Susan Montee, and he made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008.

Jacob, who is running against Columbia Republican Caleb Rowden for the new 44th District seat in the Missouri House, said his motivation for seeking elected office is the same in 2012 as it was 30 years ago.

"I am a public servant to make the world, Missouri and my county a better place," Jacob said. "I have dedicated my life to that."

Jacob was born the second of four children to a St. Louis family. After his birth, he said, the family moved around a lot: to Michigan, San Diego, Miami and Las Vegas, where he spent the longest amount of time before moving back to St. Louis. Throughout his high school years, Jacob played a number of sports.

"I've been a sports enthusiast all my life," Jacob said.

In Las Vegas, Jacob became a state champion swimmer. He continued to swim after his return to St. Louis, where he attended Lindbergh High School. He also ran track and played football. He had an interest in horse riding and archery, which he still enjoys today.

"I have three targets in my backyard," Jacobs said. "I hunt deer and turkey with a bow also, but I practice more than I hunt."

Jacob said every now and then he will go out back and shoot an arrow at a target. "I have a rule that if I shoot one arrow and miss, I have to shoot again."

Jacob, 63, remains a distance swimmer. He likes to swim a mile or two whenever he gets the chance. "I like to work out a lot," he said. "I always have. I feel very healthy and very young."

Recently, he has picked up table tennis again. He usually plays on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

"I have many coaches: one Chinese, one Iranian, and one American," he said. "I'm trying to get better, but I can't play much during the campaign."

A passion for education

At a forum held in Centralia, Jacob exuded confidence as he answered questions posed by the residents of Centralia. His presence is powerful. His tall, athletic stature and slightly graying hair give him an authoritative air. He speaks confidently and is well-versed on issues.

One Centralia resident asked Jacob what one thing he would like to accomplish if elected. It was no surprise that he said he wants to improve education.

"We all believe education is important, and in the last decade, education funding has decreased," he said. "Why aren't kids doing well in elementary and secondary school? We need to make education better and more affordable so children can compete in this world. We need to motivate young people."

Jacob's own educational achievements are evidence of his passion. He was the first in his family to earn a college degree. His mother had only a seventh-grade education and worked in real estate while raising Jacob; his older sister, Paulette; and his younger twin sisters, Sally and Suzy. His father, a World War II Navy veteran, wasn't around much when Jacob was younger.

Jacob said he can't remember his parents ever asking him about grades or school, but he pushed himself. After high school, Jacob said he attended Meramec Community College for a year, then transferred to MU.

Over the next 20 years, he earned four degrees: a bachelor of science in education with a lifetime teaching certification in social studies and economics; master's degrees in education and public administration; and a law degree, all from MU.

"I believe all problems in the world will be solved by an educated populous," Jacob said. "The way we advance is by learning new things."

Jacob met his wife, Nancy Jacob, in 1971 while attending MU.

"We were roommates first," he said. "Then we dated and became business partners, buying property together. We decided to get married when we wanted to have children."

Establishing roots

Jacob and his wife Nancy, who have two children, live on a "park-like" piece of property along St. Charles Road with a lake and lots of trees. Jacob said he bought the house 30 years ago. State Rep. Chris Kelly, he said, spent a short time in the real estate business and sold two houses. One of those was Jacob's home.

"I told Nancy we could buy it, with one exception: I didn't have to cut the grass," he said. "I hated cutting the grass."

That has changed over time, though. "I love it now," he said. "I spend a lot of time in the yard and in the garden. I planted lots of evergreen trees, but lost almost all of them during the drought."

Jacob said that when he bought the property it was fairly rural. "It's anything but rural now," he said. "Civilization has encroached upon it."

Jacob said he has been trying to improve his maintenance skills as well. 

"When I left my job at the auditor's office, I was put into retirement mode," he said. I took six classes in welding, carpentry, plumbing, sheet rock and any home improvement course available."

Jacob also is devoted to his 91-year-old mother, who recently moved into a Columbia nursing home. His affection is evident as he pulls out an iPhone to show pictures of his mother and her boyfriend.

"She has a personality," he said, "but age has calmed her down."

Before he got involved in politics, Jacob worked as executive director of the Front Door Counseling and Youth Center for seven years. After being certified to teach economics and history, Jacob said he "stumbled into working with troubled kids."

"Some of the kids I counseled still call me to this day," he said.

Politics then and now

Jacob said he became interested in politics while working to find money to help children who had no place to live. He sought advice from Kelly about how to get more involved. Kelly invited him to a meeting of Missouri Democrats, where one party member suggested Jacob run for state representative. A week later, he was a candidate.

Jacob saw the cost of college tuition grow at a pace he felt students would be unable to keep up with. He made it a legislative priority to make higher education affordable. While in the Senate, Jacob sponsored the Missouri College Guarantee Program, which provided scholarships to at-risk students who met minimum academic requirements and demonstrated financial need.

"The bill was my best work," he said. The program helped thousands of students go to college until it was repealed. As a result, "a whole generation of kids got screwed because of lack of financial aid," Jacob said. "My children included."

The opportunity for Jacob to return to the Missouri legislature arose when the boundaries for state House districts were redrawn after the 2010 U.S. Census.

"The passion I have about policy has never diminished," Jacob said.

He said the decline in attention to higher education since he left the General Assembly played a big part in his decision to run again. The debt many college students accumulate makes it difficult to buy a home or start a family, he said. He noted that he graduated law school with $1,000 in debt. By comparison, his son completed law school $100,000 in debt.

"I would like to change my old bill back," he said. "It almost makes me sick."

Jacob has said he wants to repeal term limits. 'The process of legislating is so complicated unless you have 30 years of experience," he said. "There is no substitute for experience."

Karl Skala, a former Columbia councilman and head of the Hominy Creek Neighborhood Association, serves on the board of the Boone County Muleskinners with Jacob.

"I pay attention to urban versus rural," Skala said. "The state is dominated by rural interests. We need someone to stand up for urban interests. I'm not sure Caleb (Rowden) could do that."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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