04/05/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
In the 18 years since leaving MTV, J.J. Jackson lost weight and quit smoking, committing himself to a healthier lifestyle than the one he enjoyed in the '80s, when he and four other "video jockeys" helped turn MTV into a cultural phenomenon. "He had triple-bypass surgery a few years ago," says fellow veejay and friend Mark Goodman, 51. "He was in good shape." But on March 17, driving home in L.A. after dinner with a friend, Jackson, 62, suffered a fatal heart attack. Paramedics found his black convertible Mercedes on the side of the road. "He'd managed to take his foot off the gas," says veejay Martha Quinn, 44. "No one was hurt. That was just like J.J. He took care of everyone."
Older and more seasoned as a radio and TV personality than the other veejays when MTV launched in 1981, he was "the wise veejay," says Goodman. "J.J. brought reason to whatever weirdness we were going through." After leaving the network in 1986, the ex-Marine from Boston—his initials stood for John Jay—kept busy with voice-over work and his syndicated radio show about the Beatles. Twice married, he was close to his parents, both in their 80s, and his two daughters, Vanessa, an aspiring actress in Manhattan, and Tracey, a hospital administrator and mother of three in the Bahamas.
And he remained proud of his role in MTV. "We were lucky to be there," Jackson said in '01. "And maybe the audience was lucky that the chemistry between us was so good." It was, says Goodman, "a life-changing experience that bonded us forever. It'll be so weird—it's not the five of us anymore."