Shared Memories

The many dimensions of Jim

Jim Jones was the most multi-faceted, inquisitive person I have ever known. There were so many dimensions to him—historian, teacher, opera buff, music lover, literary aficionado, sports fanatic, worldwide traveler, museum-goer, battlefield tour guide, gardener, political guru, philanthropist, railway enthusiast, a husband many times over, a devoted father to Nancy--and so much more. He was at home in both high and low brow culture—listening to rarefied classical music one minute; composing witty, pointed limericks the next. He was a voracious reader—from novels to box scores, from John Buchan to A. S. Byatt. There was almost nothing that failed to spark his curiosity. Basically, he liked people. He took an interest in others’ lives. It’s one reason students flocked to his door. They intuited that he cared about them. He understood the true meaning of empathy.

Jim was the first in his family to go to college. My hunch is that he wondered whether he really belonged and overcompensated by learning as much as possible in as many arenas as possible. He had a real thirst for knowledge. As an undergraduate, he initially attended Oxford College of Emory University—perhaps accounting for his lifelong Anglophilia. He began his doctoral studies at U. Cal. Berkeley under the daunting and formidable gaze of the distinguished historian, Kenneth Stampp. He did not last long. He experienced an earthquake, and one night almost died of gas poisoning. He came home to Florida, his native state, to complete his PhD.

Part of Jim’s complexity was that he suffered from depression. He could go into the deepest of funks, plumbing the depths of despair, but he would eventually surface, back to his sparkling, scintillating best. Even though he experienced many ailments in his later years, and railed against the ravages of old age, he was actually less depressed over time. He was generally in good spirits in his last few years.

A firm believer in creative chaos, he did not keep an ordered, tidy office—that’s an understatement. Papers lay in disarray on all available surfaces, but somehow he kept track of what was important. He generally ignored bureaucratic demands on his time. He had little truck either with educational theory. He likened good teaching to hitting a baseball. Don’t get obsessed by the mechanics; just go up there and make contact.

Jim loved to document, to list, and to count—whether it was the number of students (well over 20,000) he had taught, Civil War battlefield casualties, teaching awards he had won, music albums he owned, baseball statistics, even his daily diabetic blood scores.

Jim was well ahead of his time in his progressive views. He had many gay friends when few were out of the closet. He remained a staunch supporter of a married colleague who left the university accused of a homosexual encounter. He gave generously to civil rights causes when they were deeply unpopular. He donated money to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra because it had appointed a gay maestra as its conductor. When the Covid-19 crisis hit, Jim typically wrote a generous check to the Kool Beanz Café in support of its staff.

Most of all, I treasure the memories of our good times together. The next time I go to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and see Breughel’s The Harvesters, I will think of Jim. The next Met Opera I see, I will think of Jim. The next time I watch a Manchester United game, I will think of Jim. The next time Barbara and I visit Tommy Warren and Kathy Villacorta, especially at St Teresa, we’ll think of Jim. The next time I hear of a historian’s bizarre foibles, I will think of Jim composing a limerick to memorialize the event. The next time Donald Trump commits one more idiocy—I will not have to wait long on that score--I will think of Jim excoriating him. In fact, few aspects of human existence will not bring Jim to mind, because he was so full of life himself. I miss him terribly.

--Dr. Philip Morgan

Scholar, entertainer, and mentor

In September 1967, it took no longer than a week (three lectures) for me to realize that James Pickett Jones was not your run-of-the-mill History professor. He was a rare mix of scholar, entertainer, and mentor.

For Jim, the lectern was his stage from which he taught and entertained. His every lecture was a blend of the proverbial "big picture" with enthralling back stories. He could convey, for example, the road to Fort Sumpter through the lives of both the "greats" and the little people whose war it was to fight and die.

Few historians are adequately scholarly and confident to make the quantum leap Jim made well after I had left the ivy-covered walls of FSU. Note: Full disclosure dictates my mentioning that ivy did cover at least a couple of the walls of the Williams Building if not the exterior of the cube to which the History Department moved. It would have been comfortable for Jim, an authority on the Civil War and Reconstruction, to spend the rest of his career "farming" the fertile and blood-soaked soil of 1861-1877, but he chose to move on to World War II.

Now for Jim the mentor. He always had time to elaborate on topics broached in his lectures. And when it came time for me to finish up my dissertation from afar with two little ones vying for my time, Jim gladly agreed to serve on my committee.

A closing thought on Jim as friend. Perhaps it was because I hailed from the land of red beans and slot machines and had spent many nights in Tiger Stadium that caused Jim to want to spend time with me. How well I remember those conversations that took us from Gainesville to Baton Rouge.

Rare is the person who chooses to work well beyond the time most choose to retire. It did not surprise me that Jim continued to teach and write decades beyond 65 or so. One didn't need to ask him why. He loved the career to which he gave so much and the colleagues and students who are richer for having known him.

--Dr. Perry Snyder

From that moment we were friends

It’s hard to write about Jim, because there is too much to say. And part of what there is to say is about the too-muchness. People drove him and energized him and lit him up; I have never known someone who was so genuinely, completely interested in other people. So many people felt so close to him as a beloved teacher, a beloved friend, a person who changed lives because of unshakable decency and kindness. When I talk about Jim, I always do it knowing that everyone has a story. But this is a little bit of mine.

I was hired when Jim retired, but I didn’t know that immediately, because Jim didn’t get involved in my hiring. That was an act of tremendous self-restraint, since it involved a job he had treated as a vocation for almost sixty years. We didn’t meet until a few months after I came to FSU. He walked into my office and sat down and stuck his hand out. I was smart enough to know by then that it was a big deal to meet Jim Jones, so I said something about what an honor it was. And Jim rolled his eyes and laughed at me and cussed. And just about from that moment we were friends.

It helped that we were passionate about the same things—American history and politics and teaching and old movies and sports. We agreed about what was important and thought the same things were funny. I’ve thought a lot recently about how extraordinary it was that we became real friends. Most revered, retired male historians do not become close buddies with their young(ish) female successors. But Jim never acted as if I were stepping on his territory. Instead, he helped me feel welcomed into a tradition that he was proud of and that I could be proud of, too. He is with me every day, and that is a great gift.

--Dr. Katherine Mooney

Nothing but fond memories

I have nothing but fond memories of Dr. Jones as my faculty advisor. He was approachable, respectful, courteous, and candid. Dr. Jones’ students looked forward to his class. He brightened my days at FSU. Thousands of other students can say the same.

--Mr. Jerome Mercer

Anyone can have a story that matters

I graduated from FSU with History and Theatre in 2013. I took my first class with Dr. Jones as a sophomore after being encouraged to do so by my fellow history majors.

My fondest memory of Dr. Jones was in that first class when I received a "C" on a test. This was the first time I had received a "C" on any test in my entire life. I asked after class if I could meet with Dr. Jones and go over my test so I could improve my grade for the next time. Dr. Jones gruffly invited me up to his office later that day. When I arrived at his office, he invited me inside and I handed him my test. He looked at it and then looked up at me and said "this is one of the worst fucking tests I have ever seen." I was taken aback at his bluntness but he then kindly said "let's go through this." He then proceeded to go through each question and show me how to answer them correctly for future tests.

I never received below an "A" on any assignment moving forward with Dr. Jones and I took his courses two more times. He always remembered my name, my favorite sports teams, and always asked me about the theatre shows I was working on. His kindness and honesty grew a love of history that inspired me to be a history teacher. He taught me above all that history is about people and anyone can have a story that matters. I cannot adequately express my admiration and thankfulness for Dr. Jones as a professor and mentor.

--Mr. Jason Porrata

You could have heard a pin drop during his lectures

Jim Jones was a teacher of history whose own record reached historic proportions. He taught traditional students full-time for 57 years. But that wasn’t enough for Jim. After he retired in 2014, he hadn’t had enough of teaching, and in 2015 he took on a new kind of students – nontraditional ones—learners over 50 who weren’t looking for degrees or credentials or career boosts--students who didn’t need grades or exams or required reading to keep them motivated. These students, who were all members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at FSU took courses in a wide variety of subjects simply because they loved to learn. And they loved Jim. Jim came to OLLI through the efforts of Susan Yelton, a past OLLI president and chair of the Curriculum Committee at the time. Susan first met Jim when she was an undergraduate at FSU in 1962. They became friends then and remained in touch through the years. Fifty-three years after Susan took that first class with Jim, she was once again his student. And Susan wasn’t the only OLLI student who had had Jim as an instructor decades ago. It was a real treat for those FSU alumni to experience Jim’s unique approach once again. It was also a real treat for our OLLI students who hadn’t had the Jim Jones’ experience. Susan said he was OLLI’s most popular faculty member. She said, “People took his classes knowing the subject matter, but took his classes because he was Jim Jones. He created a history for us that took us back into time with his incredible knowledge.”I felt that taking one of Jim’s classes was like listening to a movie. He would sing and recite poems from memory times. He held our attention so well you could have heard a pin drop during his lectures. And our students just couldn’t get enough of Jim. Between 2015 and 2020 he taught 15 classes for OLLI and often told us that teaching OLLI classes was keeping him going. Even as his health deteriorated, he kept teaching. We had hoped he’d make it to 90—that’s what he told me he wanted to do, but that wasn’t to be.You won’t be surprised to hear that Jim taught classes on the Civil War and World War II. A course on Winston Churchill would seem like a natural. But Jim went beyond expectations. With his passion for sports, especially baseball, he also taught a course on Movies, Sports and Social Issues. And he offered a class on Watergate, based on the movie, and called it, “All the President’s Men and ME.” But I suspect you’ll be as surprised as I was when Jim wanted to teach a class on girl detective Nancy Drew. As a person who had been concerned about civil liberties for his entire life, he wanted to point out the racism in that beloved series. He had read the series as a child and had published an article back in 1971 in the Journal of Negro Education titled “Negro Stereotypes in Children’s Literature: The Case of Nancy Drew.” I said, “OK, go for it,” and he did. His lecture was another slam dunk, and we are looking forward to making it available for viewing in the near future.Up until early last spring, when the pandemic disrupted our OLLI classes, Jim was still offering his insight, his wisdom, his thoughts to hundreds of students—so many that we had to find extra-large lecture halls in the community to accommodate the crowds. You all know about Jim’s salty language! Well, I went to Temple Israel to ask if their sanctuary would be available for Jim’s lectures, I also made sure that the rabbi knew that Jim’s language wasn’t always the most appropriate for a religious venue. Fortunately, I was assured that it wouldn’t be a problem. Jim was known for his generosity of spirit. He was open to questions and comments, both in class and beyond. He loved the interaction with his students, and they loved their interaction with him. I thought you might like to hear just a few of the many compliments and comments our students offered on Jim’s courses. Wish I had learned history from a master like this when I was a kid. Wonderful instructor - he hasn't changed much since I took a class from him in 1962. (As an aside, I looked at his scant notes one time and thought they were also from 1962!!) Another comment, If Dr. Jones taught a course on the phone book, I'd take it!Wonderful presentation of history. Wish I had classes like this when I was in school.Can't wait until the next semester. A legend indeed.Jim’s course evaluation files are packed with notes like these. And he was interested in reading each of them.Jim’s classes attracted a wide variety of students, and many took classes more than once, just to savor the expertise and experience. Among the most prominent was the late FSU President Sandy D’Alemberte, who was often found sitting in Jim’s classes next to his wife, Patsy Palmer. I somehow imagine Jim and Sandy sitting together somewhere behind the pearly gates having rousing discussions of history, civil rights, sports and all the other passions and concerns they both shared as gifted intellects and lifelong learners. Wouldn’t we all love to be able to sit in on those conversations!We miss Jim terribly. He was beloved by his students and dedicated his life to education. For OLLI, it is truly the end of an era.

--Ms. Debra Herman

A friend, a teacher and an advocate for a better world

I am humbled to be writing about my memories of my friend Jim Jones. So many OLLI members have wonderful stories to tell about Jim and could have written this article. I hope I capture some of the things we all loved about Jim. It’s difficult for me to write about him. He was a wonderful friend and I will miss our weekly conversations and luncheons at Kool Beanz.

My story begins in 1959, when I came to FSU as a sophomore straight out of NYC as a Hunter College student. Lost is a community where I had no roots, I found a home in the history department where Jim Jones and Bill Rogers exposed me to a period of history that was not emphasized in NYC schools. Bill died a few years ago, shortly after he published a soft covered book, “Victorian Thomasville."

The nineteen sixties were a time of the Civil Right protests in Tallahassee. Jim was a young professor and I was an eager student, trying to understand why I would be officially reprimanded by the FSU administration if I went to the FAMU campus to see the band play at a football game. Or why I could not wear jeans for class. Years later, Jim and I had many laughs about Dean Katie Warren and all her rules for female students. Our conversations were filled with memories of the early 60’s and concern about the issues we are still dealing with today.

I have often thought how family plays a part in our life’s decisions. Jim told me many stories about his mother, who was from Charleston, her impact on his interest in history, love of opera and belief that all men are created equal. Jim grew up in what was then segregated Jacksonville, Florida but his parents gave him a different perspective about life that made him Jim the man who always supported civil rights and students who were protesting in the 60’s.

His father was from Oklahoma, worked for the railroad, and left Jim with a lasting interest in collecting railroad cars and a love for the St. Louis Cardinals. Jim had several falls last year, including one when he and Vince Mikkelsen were up in his attic making some decisions about the trains. “Vinnie”, as Jim called him, became an important part of his life. That was Jim; keeping in touch with so many students over the years.

I wish had memories of Jim playing tennis, softball, teaching at FSU and having an active life before retirement. But, I will fast forward to OLLI days, when I began driving him to and from his classes with help from Larry Peterson and John Van Geison. No matter how hard I tried, Jim refused to get a handicapped tag or use his FSU card for parking. He never questioned why I took his classes year after year; it was our friendship that mattered. I knew Jim wanted to teach until he was 90 years old and Debra was trying to make that happen. COVID-19 changed everything.

During Jim’s teaching years at OLLI, there were so many good days when we had lunch at the Oyster Bar after Jim’s class with Sandy D’Alemberte, Duby Ausley, Jim Apthorp, and Patsy Palmer. It was a time to talk politics and enjoy a taste of old Tallahassee. They were his buddies from days done by. I am so glad that the week before Jim died, he was with friends Jim and Duby at the Oyster Bar. Jim took Sandy’s death very hard and if you were in Jim’s class, you will remember he dedicated the class to Sandy. Both of them shared the same values about civil rights.

As I reminiscence about Jim, every day was special when we would meet at Kool Beanz, talk about old times, what was wrong with our world, my travel plans and the books we were reading. Jim was a world traveler before retirement. Our luncheons became my travel experiences and he could always give me a tour of England and France that was better than my tour guide. My annual trips NYC became his as he reminisced about traveling there at the end of each fall semester for music and art. Just wish I loved opera a much as he did.

One day I asked Jenny Crowley to join us for lunch and all I could do was sit back and enjoy my meal. They both went to Oxford College in Georgia and their funny stories filled the time until dessert. Jim had told me many stories about his time at Oxford and all the pranks that he and others organized. I can guess that the college was glad when Jim moved on to the University of Florida.

As hard as I tried I was never able to get Jim to teach: The History of Sports. We loved him for the Civil War and World War 11, but there was no one better to talk about sports than Jim. He was a “Google Search” if you asked him about baseball and loved the Cardinals. I thought I would impress him one day when I showed him my 1957 signed Yankee baseball and that was a big mistake. He hated the Yankees!

In recent years, it really made me sad when Jim no longer made his trips to Tampa for a weekend of baseball.

I always thought I knew Jim until the day he told me he could give a lecture about Nancy Drew books. That was beyond my understanding of Jim’s interest and expertise. As he told the story, when he was in elementary school, during quiet time, his teacher would read the Nancy Drew books to the children. The books became a part of his life and in later years he would publish an outstanding article about “Nancy Drew “ and racism.

On Thursday, a few days before Jim died, I visited him in the hospital. He was not fully conscious and his daughter was reading him a Nancy Drew story. Just like the times his teacher read to him years ago. We have the video of Jim giving the Nancy Drew lecture and perhaps when our world returns to normal we can all hear his voice again and remember how much he gave us during his years at OLLI.

Jim and I talked every week during the Covid -19 lock down. He was in good spirits. He and I shared a love for plants and when the times were back to normal I was going to dig up one of his gloriosa lilies so I would have a memory of him. He was ready for some new plants and Tallahassee Nursery was contacted. I brought Jim blueberries every week so at least we got to meet out side his house. And then one day, he told me he was going to the doctor and thought he was going to the hospital.

It all happened so fast! I thought I had time to see Jim, but we never know when that time comes. I could not visit him on his birthday, July 17th, because of hospital policy, but the next two days I an other friends were able to be with him. Jim died Saturday, July 20th and we were all back at Kool Beanz that night with his daughter Nancy remembering Jim Jones… a friend, a teacher and an advocate for a better world.

--Ms. Susan Yelton

Memorial at FSU

The funeral service, held July 18, 2020, can be viewed here.