Whether he was a mentor, a counselor or musing about life in poetry, former Fort Lewis College President Joel Jones was a memorable member of the Durango community. He died at his home just before midnight Wednesday after fighting brain cancer for 18 months, one month shy of his 79th birthday.
Jones moved to Durango in 1988 to take over the helm at the college, a post he would hold for 10 years.
“He was my friend and one of FLC’s most loyal advocates,” Fort Lewis President Dene Thomas said. “His influences can be found in every corner of Fort Lewis College and in generations of alumni. His legacy is seen daily across campus, most importantly in the faces of today’s students. I will miss him.”
Under Jones’ leadership, the college saw enrollment reach its highest level to date – 4,200 – and academic programs grow. He increased local, state, regional and federal support, the college said in a news release.
During Jones’s tenure, the college developed the FLC Facilities Master Plan, which led to millions of dollars of capital improvements, including the Center of Southwest Studies, Education Business Hall and the Fine Arts Building, now named Jones Hall in his honor.
“He was such a great supporter of the Center of Southwest Studies, leading the effort to provide it with a new building and staying in touch with its activities and collections,” said Richard Ballantine, chairman of the board of Ballantine Communications Inc., which publishes The Durango Herald.
During the heavy winter of 1992-1993, the roof of the college’s Fine Arts theater collapsed while the building was empty. The collapse led to one of the college’s largest fundraising efforts, to build the Community Concert Hall at FLC. The hall opened in 1996.
Jones helped create El Centro de Muchos Colores, the college’s Hispano resource center, and added men’s and women’s soccer to varsity sports, programs that led to national prominence. And, through some emotional ups and downs, he led the effort as the college changed its nickname and mascot from the Raiders to the Skyhawks.
“Joel was an educator who didn’t need a classroom,” Ballantine said. “He taught by his curiosity and the questions he asked in conversations, with the books he gifted, and with his endless plans for the future. He loved so much of life and wanted to share it all.”
Jones was given the title of president emeritus upon his retirement in 1998.
“He served as a mentor and role model to many of the presidents who succeeded him,” said Steve Short, an FLC trustee and chairman of the board of First National Bank of Durango. “While it might be normal for there to be some competitiveness by presidents following a leader who was so popular, later presidents continued to look up to him and rely on his guidance. Staff who are still there and many retirees still adore him.”
Named Citizen of the Year by the Durango Chamber of Commerce in 1997, Jones retained his commitment to education after retiring from the college, serving on the Durango School District 9-R Board of Education for several years and stepping into the breach for six months as interim superintendent while the district conducted a search.
“I remember he walked in the first day as superintendent, and he didn’t know what in the world to do,” Ballantine said, “so he went and visited the schools.”
Jones became the go-to man for interim leadership, also serving as the interim president of Salisbury University in the University of Maryland system and interim director for the Durango Chamber when those organizations were seeking new leadership.
He was also instrumental in founding Leadership La Plata, and he was a frequent lecturer at class sessions. Most recently, Jones spoke about “The Art of Leading in Times of Ambiguity” at the Arts and Culture class in January.
In recent years, Jones gave frequent lectures about leadership and wrote a monthly column for the Four Corners Business Journal.
Jones wrote poetry for much of his life. His wife, Rochelle Mann, collected favorites into a book called I Hold the Stone, and The Stone Holds Me, which was published earlier this year.
“One thing I will always remember is his love of rocks,” Short said. “Most people see them as inanimate objects, but he could extract so much about life from them. As I got to know him and understood that, in many respects he became a rock in my life and in many other people’s lives.”
Jones began his academic career at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he taught and served as assistant vice president for academic affairs, associate provost and dean of faculties and vice president for administration, planning and student affairs.
“In 1974, I was accepted into the Ph.D. program of American Studies at the University of New Mexico,” said poet Fred Wildfang. “He was the head of the department and had put together a rich and diverse group of doctoral candidates from all walks of life. He was a great inspiration, a great influence on the students’ work and the students’ lives, particularly on my poetry.”
It was Jones’ emphasis on sense of place that most influenced Wildfang and struck Ballantine.
“Joel had a great feeling for ‘place,’ particularly in the desert Southwest,” Ballantine said. “Whether it was Southeast Utah or northern New Mexico, he enjoyed the vistas, rocks and sky, and when he walked trails and mountainsides, he seemed to feel the history that had taken place there.”