As long as there’s been a Walmart in Iola, Bob Jones has worn its uniform. Most days you’ll find the 60-year-old produce associate tending the bright aisles of fruits and vegetables and the racks of vacuum-packed salads, and helping shoppers who these days often seek him out by name. But if Jones has overturned long odds to become one of the store’s most senior employees — he’s in his 27th year — he refuses to credit himself.
Most stories begin with an “I”: I went to this school, then I got this job, then I joined this club. We’re the heroes of our own adventures. Not with Bob Jones; Bob Jones tells the truer story — that our progress depends on the influence of others.
This is how a Jones story begins: “Ray Houser, one of my instructors — a wonderful man — helped me a lot when I was having a tough time in school….” “Buck Quincy, my basketball coach, was very inspirational….” “Dick Strahl, out at TG&Y, got me started in the retail business….” “Bill Deckinger, the pastor out at Calvary United Methodist, gave me my first bible….”
Jones was putting people first before he ever entered customer service.
He recalls a pivotal scene from high school. “I was not what you’d call an ‘A student,’” remembers Jones. “I just had a rough time passing a lot of tests and everything.” Eventually a school administrator told the teen he probably wasn’t the sort of kid who could make graduation.
The person in the story who sticks out for Jones, however, is the school’s former guidance counselor, T.D. Wheat, who stepped in just when Jones needed him the most. “He told [this administrator], he says ‘Come on, let’s give Bob a chance.’”
These are only a few of the “inspirational” — a favorite word — Iolans who Jones name-checks. But trust that if you’ve ever lent Bob Jones a hand or aimed a kind word his way — even if it was 50 years ago — he remembers you.
JONES GREW up near the railroad tracks in Iola, and his great bond with his father was always based on their love of trains.
“I’m a train fanatic,” says Jones. The pair would often go down to the tracks and watch the engines zip through town and, at home, they spent countless hours on the floor working on model trains.
“Not the plastic stuff,” Jones stresses. “It was the old Lionel stuff.” Jones remembers his dad calling the Madison Hardware Co., in New York, any time one of their model parts busted. “He’d send it up there and every time he’d get it back, they hadn’t packed it right and something else would be broke on it.”
Sometime in the late 1980s the elder Jones passed the set on to his son. “We were supposed to eventually get a place to set it up, but you know how God works — his life didn’t last. Dad worked the last day on his job and went home and had a nice supper and went to bed and that was it. He was 59.”
But it didn’t stop Jones from going down to watch the trains on his own. He’d climb through the long grass at the edge of the tracks to get a better view. “I remember my dad saying that when the Katy used to pass through here, he’d go watch it and the train would send sparks up out of the old smokestack.” On Jones’ own visits he would get close enough to feel the wind from the passing cars. The grass would get whipped up and blow pollen into his eyes. “I was always allergic to the weeds down there, and my eyes would run and swell shut when I’d get to rubbing them.”
A SPORTS fan from the start, in middle school Jones used to bundle up and walk from the family’s Campbell Street home out to the college to watch basketball games. In high school, too, sports offered Jones a consolation that he didn’t always find in the school’s corridors.
Jones was the equipment manager for the football and basketball teams — under coaches Ray Houser and Buck Quincy, respectively — for most of his high school career.
“Like I said, I wasn’t a popular name in school until I got involved in athletics. People might make fun of me, say I wasn’t very smart and this and that. Back then, if you didn’t have a name in school, I’m sorry but you just didn’t have anything. I never did go to any of the dances. I helped clean up for prom when I was a junior but, no, I never did go.”
But he did graduate. Of the administrator who warned him early on of his piddling chances, Jones says: “I made a believer out of him. Today, he’s a wonderful man, who actually thinks a lot of me.
“And check this out,” says Jones. “Back then you only had to have 19 credits to graduate. I had 21. I didn’t give God credit then, but I do now.”