The year was 1967. Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as the first African-American justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Here in Cleveland, Carl Stokes became the first African-American elected mayor U.S. city. And at Case Western Reserve, Jefferson J. Jones, Ohio’s first African-American endodontist, accepted a one-year contract as an instructor School of Dental Medicine.
Jones went on to spend more than four decades at the school, chairing the endodontics department and raising it to national prominence, founding its graduate residency program and leading the university’s African-American Faculty and Staff Organization for nearly a quarter century. Earlier this month, the renowned healer, teacher and community leader passed away at 83. Last week, the faculty and staff of the School of Dental Medicine adopted a resolution in Jones’ honor, to be presented to his family on the day of his memorial service. It read in part:
“Dr. Jefferson J. Jones was a leader and an inspiration to all he came in contact with, not only in the Greater Cleveland area, but nationally and internationally…. We recognize [his] remarkable achievements and show our love, respect and support for his family as we mourn his death together.”
The dental school plans to hold its own memorial observance for Jones later this academic year. For now those who knew him have been reflecting on his many contributions with profound respect—and gratitude.
“I became an endodontist because he was an endodontist. I became an academic because he was an academic. I named my daughter Jacqueline because his daughter was Jacqueline,” said one of his former students, School of Dental Medicine Dean Kenneth Chance. “I patterned my life after him because he was the finest example of an academic, an administrator, a gentleman and a mentor.”
A native of Virginia, Jones grew up in Pittsburgh and won a scholarship to attend Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. After graduation, he worked two stints at Cleveland Clinic in research and served twice in the U.S. Army, eventually earning the rank of captain. He also attended dental school at the University of Pittsburgh and did postgraduate training in endodontics in San Francisco. Upon returning to Cleveland, Jones accepted the position at Case Western Reserve and also began work at University Hospitals.
“He was a very gentle practitioner,” Chance recalled. “He took time to pay attention to detail. The patient was centered in his regimen, in his thought process. He made you feel like you were the most important person in the world as a patient.”
Jones’ commitment to patients was matched by his belief in giving his students an education that was a rigorous and supportive as possible—even if it meant assuming additional responsibilities himself. In 1984, for example, the graduate residency program Jones founded faced closure when the professor assigned to teach it accepted a chair position elsewhere. Jones prevailed upon the dean to reconsider, and taught the program himself until he could identify a promising replacement. That individual proved to be André Mickel, now the school’s chair of endodontics.
“He stayed [for 42 years] because he cared about people,” Chance recalled. “He cared about teaching them tools that would change their lives—giving them fishing poles and teaching them how to fish, rather than to just give them a fish. And to change attitudes which we now live by.“
At the same time, Chance and others said, Jones felt a deep responsibility to support colleagues across the university. David Miller, an associate professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, recalled working with Jones to advance issues involving African-American faculty and staff starting in the 1990s. One of Jones’ priorities, he remembered, was to press then-President Agnar Pytte to continue solid financial support for the African-American faculty and staff organization.
“You had someone who was a very strong champion for inclusion and diversity before that word really became a buzz around campus.” said Miller. “Jeff was really promoting that in his actions and his beliefs and his conversations. He was someone who was very formidable in his beliefs and he wasn’t afraid to be that person out on the frontlines to talk about that. He was someone who had the best interests of the university in his thoughts and also making sure the university stood up and made sure everyone had that opportunity to benefit from the resources here.”
In addition to his school and university activities, Jones also served as a consultant to the VA, a longtime member of the Board of Directors of the Greater Cleveland Dental Society, and the founding dental director of a program to provide medical and dental services to residents of the Glenville neighborhood. In 2007, Jones received the Health Legacy of Cleveland Award for Excellence in recognition of his advocacy for the medically underserved and many other contributions.
Jones’ family last week asked that in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory can be made to Health Legacy of Cleveland, P. O. Box 201519, Shaker Heights, OH 44120-8108, c/o Jefferson J. Jones, DMD Scholarship Fund.
Watch the daily for updates regarding campus memorial activities.