His most recent accolade came two weeks ago, when he was named a Significant Sig by Sigma Chi fraternity. Jones joins many other notable Significant Sig winners including John Wayne, David Letterman and Urban Meyer.
But when Jones reflects on his life thus far, the awards aren’t what stand out in his mind. Rather, it’s the life-changing work he was able to accomplish during his career that makes him proudest.
“I’ve learned over the years, honestly it’s not what you’re recognized for,” Jones said. “It’s what you actually achieved, whether anybody knows it or not. … To me, the honor was in getting things done.”
Jones was born and raised in Kingsport and graduated from Dobyns-Bennett High School. He was inspired to become a judge at a young age after experiencing his parents’ divorce.
“I wanted to stay more with my dad, but one of the reasons I became a judge was because I wanted to testify at the hearing during the divorce; they wouldn’t let me. … I wasn’t allowed to say or do anything,” Jones said. “Later on, my dad told me that he wouldn’t be able to see me much, and I thought that wasn’t right. So I thought, ‘One of these days, I’m going to be that judge that I saw, and I’m going to make sure that kids have a voice.’ ”
A successful career
Throughout his career, Jones said one of his primary goals was to “change the system for the better.” After graduating from college, he worked in a private law practice in Kingsport before serving as the first attorney general pro tempore, during which time he made an effort to cut down on deaths caused by drunken drivers.
“Back then in the early ’70s, DUI deaths and wrecks really didn’t amount to much in the way of punishment,” Jones said. “It was the No. 1 reason people were dying, so we wrote a law that required mandatory incarceration … and revocation of license.”
All the while, Jones said he still hold onto his childhood dream of being a judge. That dream came true in 1984, when he was elected judge of the Sullivan County General Sessions and Juvenile Court.
Often working around the clock, Jones strived to make the court more efficient, established a community advisory board, created a mental health and drug court and developed programs to keep young people out of the criminal court system. As a result of his efforts, the court was named a model for the state, and Jones was asked to help implement many of his programs statewide.
“We certainly were able to help a lot of people, and that’s what life’s about,” Jones said. “I think it’s enabling other people to have a better life.”
After serving 20 years as a county judge, Jones was appointed in 2004 to the federal Council of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. He also served on committees in Washington, D.C., where he helped develop innovative ways to deter young people from committing crimes.
Though he is technically retired, Jones said he’s been working harder than ever, developing more programs and writing manuscripts on how to reach young people before they become deviant.
After joining Sigma Chi in college, Jones said it became an important part of his life and allowed him to balance his social circle with his physical, spiritual and intellectual undertakings. He and his fellow fraternity members would daydream about being named a Significant Sig, though they acknowledged it was a far-fetched goal.
“It was just a pipe dream,” Jones said. “You never expected to obtain that.”
But like many other things Jones worked for, that dream became a reality. He’s been invited to a special ceremony in Salt Lake City in June, where he will be officially presented with the award.
In the meantime, Jones isn’t planning on slowing down. Instead, he’s looking forward to a new set of challenges.
“I don’t think it’s so much about what you have; it’s what you give,” Jones said. “As someone who loves their country and someone who has professed love of God, it’s a part of your calling when you get to a point in life where you have skills that you can utilize. The last thing you ever do is quit.”