A&M-Central Texas' Jerry Jones Remembers 25+ Years as a Professor, Scholar, and Dean

Karen Clos
April 22, 2024

Above: Career-spanning photos of Dr. Jerry W. Jones, professor of history at Texas A&M University–Central Texas. Jones' time in education includes more than 25 years in the classroom and publication of "U.S. Battleship Operations in World War I", analyzing the strategic and tactical U.S. battleship operations during World War I and their impact on the war's maritime dynamics.

When Jerry Jones, Ph.D., enters a room, he does so quietly, pulling up a chair, situating himself comfortably, and completely and without pretention, telling the story of over three decades of teaching, leading, and learning. Twenty-eight of those years, he says, were at A&M-Central Texas or the three other universities that pre-dated it, and, as a result, he is rightfully known as the longest-serving employee at the university.

It is a gift of a sort that he is a historian. After all, he has not simply acquired historical or contextual facts and figures. To hear him weave a story or to engage him in conversation on just about any topic is to experience the same scholarly but slightly raconteurish style that has fascinated his students and colleagues.

He is a historian first and foremost, but his way with words, his precise and sometimes pithy humor, his ability to bob and weave effortlessly through the thens and nows, and his sheer breadth and depth of knowledge is matched only by his captivating persona, his love for history, and his professional journey.

As he makes himself comfortable in a somewhat comfortable office chair, his right hand is casually wrapped around the candy cane curve of his polished wooden walking staff, and his left hand finds its place on top his other hand as if all three were used to this conversational pose – the cane being a good and familiar companion and not simply a functional necessity.

Perhaps for most people, Jones might well be mistaken for a character straight out of early 20th century history or a Spielberg movie. He might not be a man with a hat or obsessed with antiquities from an ancient people, but, then again, given his long love for history, he might be.

His weathered face reveals equal parts outdoorsmanship earned while working on his beloved smallish Central Texas cattle ranch, and the deep tan and touch of sunburn suggests sustained direct exposure while herding or hay bailing. But there is no denying that it wouldn’t take much more than a sepia toned lens to easily confuse him for one of the roughriders or the early 20th century – or maybe even Teddy Roosevelt himself during the Spanish American war.

Today, he is dressed in black, an impeccably pressed long-sleeved shirt, black jeans, and comfortably broken in black pointed toe boots. Having been with the university as long as he has, there is no denying that he is of a certain age, but it is also true that he is decidedly distinguished not just by his academic career or many degrees; he is possessed of the classic features of a bygone era: a thick and well-maintained goatee, gentlemanly haircut framing his sturdy face, deep set semi-mischievous brown eyes, and infrequent but disarming smile.

The things he knows – and he knows quite a bit – were slowly but methodically accumulated, beginning with a childhood filled with reading – all kinds of reading – anything and everything he could get his hands on.

“I was reading naval history when I was 12 years old, and, by the time I was 14, I was reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and the history of Nicholas and Alexandra,” he said. “History was in my fertile imagination.”

That was certainly the initiation of his historical curiosity, but in the years between then and now, Jones never stopped devouring ideas. This man is no one’s ‘typical’ anything. He had put himself through his theological studies working as a carpenter and was the first in his entire family to go to college.

After earning a doctorate from the University of North Texas, he set his sights on becoming a professor of history. And he has never stopped learning or, for that matter, researching. With more than a quarter of a century of continuous teaching and relentless academic curiosity, he is an authority on matters historical: diplomacy, international relations, military history, strategic warfare, and modern European history.

It wasn’t always that way, though, he laughs. There was a time when – after earning his doctorate – his future didn’t seem at all like a sane fiscal decision.

“I was 30 years old and my wife, Marie, and I had been married for six years. I had just graduated with my doctorate from the University of North Texas,” he said, offering a half-crooked smile as if it might be a tribute to the younger man he was.

He shrugged a little bit while pausing before allowing the corners of his mouth to form a discreet semi smile just beneath the curled corners of his salt and pepper moustache, tilted his head to one said, and confessed.

“It might be humorous now, but it was no fun then,” he said, explaining how he had applied for a history professor position at the University of Central Texas in Killeen.

They had invited him to interview, explained how much they were looking for scholars who could also be innovators and creators of the new university that – while not visible at the time – was surely destined to come in the not-too-distant future, and indeed, offered him the job.

“My wife was with me that day, and I told her how excited I was to be in such a unique place,” he began. “But when I told her how much my salary was per year, she broke down and cried in the parking lot,” he said.

“At that time, UCT faculty made just $25,000 per year if they did not work in the summer–less than the average local high school teacher at the time – and practically none of them had just spent four years completing a doctorate in history.

Jones’ wife, Marie, might have shed genuine tears that afternoon, but the truth is that she knew her husband’s passion for history and knew that it wasn’t the prospect of future riches that had inspired him to pursue a career as a university professor.

And so it was, he said, that the opportunity to be a part of what would soon become part of the storied Texas A&M University System was just tempting enough to overcome her hesitation about his compensation and his hesitation about her possible misgivings.

“There were about 22 full-time faculty when I joined UCT, and we were all equally invested in this chance to build a university from the ground up,” he said. “It is not something that happens very often if at all, and we did whatever we were called on to do to make it happen – not just then, but for years after. We were making bricks without straw, but our faith that we would become a public university sustained us.”

And sometimes, he laughed, it wasn’t the long-range prospect of how and when this new university might become real. It was living with the little things that made his life – well – interesting.

His desk, he said, was really only a desk in a theoretical sense. A hand-me-down right out of surplus, he laughed, it had been long discarded by someone at Central Texas College, had all four of its legs missing, and was made tall enough for his use only by standing it up on cement blocks.

If he wanted a bookshelf – in the miniscule six by six-foot office he occupied – he had to keep an eye out for one that might be discarded or swipe one from an open space when it wasn’t being used. Until he found one, his beloved history books were stacked like pancakes from the floor into pillars against the wall in his office.

He hadn’t been brought there only to be a professor, he said. He had been asked to get Political Science courses back on the schedule, and staff them, while creating the new undergraduate and graduate programs in history. “Most of a decade passed before I had a colleague in Political Science, Dr. Jeff Dixon, and twelve years before I had a full-time colleague in history. “I did all of the advising and taught most of the courses for around fifty history majors during those years.”

Those are the things that matter, he said, the treble in his voice resonating with pride and accomplishment. But he does not claim it for himself; he claims it for all faculty and staff who – then and now – didn’t just agree to come to a university that gave them a chance to build it – they embraced the chance to have a uniquely different kind of academic career – and still do to this very day.

A student of military strategy himself, Jones knows where his heart is and always will be. And, at this point in his career, seeding the ground of impeccably trained history students, scholars, and everyday spectators is something that wasn’t just with him in the early years as a new professor, it remains with him still today, quite irreversibly in his blood.

This May, as the University celebrates its 15-year anniversary after becoming the 11th regional university of the Texas A&M University System in 2009, Jones is rightfully proud of what he and so many colleagues – and their current and former students – continue to accomplish.

“There have been a large number of our students who have gone on to the top doctoral programs in the country, and many others are teaching the next generation of history students in the public schools,” he said.

The best part, he stubbornly and perhaps rightfully believes, is the history program has never lowered its academic standards. Over the years, he has held his students and himself to a rigorous curriculum. He has gone beyond classroom teaching, nurturing their love for history while preparing them for wherever their chosen career might be, and stepping out of the limelight to highlight their accomplishments.

“When faculty put their entire professional lives into seeing this one goal of a university come into being, and they see the programs that they create blossom and thrive, it is impossible not to see their own DNA throughout the program,” he noted. “I’ve been very lucky to have such a long perspective and seen it flourish.”

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