Gary, Ind. mourns native son Michael Jackson

GARY, Ind. – Fans formed a prayer circle on the front yard of Michael Jackson‘s modest childhood home Thursday and hundreds more crowded the street after word spread that the “King of Pop” and Gary native had died.

Stuffed teddy bears and roses were left on the porch of the small white frame house where Jackson grew up, which now sits empty, as neighbors gathered to light candles and pen notes of condolence.

“I had to come here because I literally was going to break down if I sat in my house,” said Wyatt Puryear, a truck driver from Gary who said he named his son Michael after Jackson, who died in Los Angeles at age 50.

“I grew up on Michael Jackson,” said Puryear, 38. “Ever since I was a kid, I was dancing and singing like him.”

Bernetta Galloway of Gary said she headed straight to the Jackson home from her doctor’s office after hearing the news. The 50-year-old said residents are proud of Jackson because he was “somebody from Gary who did something with their life.”

Jackson was born the seventh of nine children in Gary on Aug. 19, 1958. He was 11 years old when the family moved out of the city after the Jackson 5 recorded their first album in 1969.

Gordon Keith signed the Jackson Five to his Gary-based Steeltown Records in 1967. Decades later he sued Jackson family members over the rights to their early recordings with Steeltown.

Keith, who still lives in Gary, recorded the Jacksons‘ first record, a 45 with side one “Big Boy” and flip side “You’ve Changed” released in 1967. Michael Jackson was 7 1/2 or 8 at the time.

“He was super when I first met him and heard him,” Keith said. “I definitely knew that about him.”

The Jackson 5 played two concerts at West Side High School in 1971, but Michael Jackson did not return to Gary until June 2003. It was his last trip to his hometown.

Gary Mayor Rudy Clay, who was not yet mayor then, said Jackson received a hero’s welcome. Clay said Jackson made residents in the beleaguered city along Lake Michigan proud of their once-prosperous steeltown.

“I had the opportunity to shake his hand and talk to him … and that’s where I saw the love in his heart and how humble he was as a person,” Clay said. “You could feel the love that Michael had for people.”

Robert Crawford, 42, a crane operator who has lived in Gary all his life, started singing the Jackson 5 song “Going Back to Indiana” as he stood in front of the Jackson’s boyhood home Thursday evening.

“I think his memory is going to live on,” Crawford said. “They should bring a statue of Michael right here.”

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