Jones pulls up to the Dickson Schoolhouse in the backseat of a rented silver Lincoln Town Car, driven by his cousin Terry Connolly, who lives in Detroit but grew up, like Jones, in Dublin. Jones steps out of the car dressed in a light gray suit with an open-necked gray shirt and carrying a cane. His height—just over 6 feet 1 inch—his massive build, the cane, the silver suit all combine to create a regal aura, and it’s hard not to think of King Lear, Mufasa, even Coming to America’s King Jaffe Joffeur. As the crowd gapes, Jones smiles, a shy but nevertheless wonderful both-sets-of-teeth smile that hints at mischievousness. Then he speaks, and that baritone fills the Brethren air: “I don’t need this cane, it was given to me today at lunch. The top is a doorknob from the schoolhouse,” he says, simply. But the voice makes you believe wisdom lives. At the very least, it convinces you that perhaps you should have heeded this voice of CNN and watched the network more.
Later, seated under an oak that was large even when he was in high school, Jones reminisces a bit. He points across the yard and says there used to be a tree on that corner. “I remember the day that Donald Crouch had his class outdoors under that tree. I remember that. It was about Emerson and stuff like that, y’ know? I thought every student had one of those,” he says, referring to the great teacher. “I wish they did.”
Over the years, the Dickson School has become a touchstone of sorts for Jones, and on other occasions he’s brought his wife, Cecilia Hart, and their son, Flynn, now 24. “I made sure they met my school,” he says. The school, Jones says, taught him more than just to speak—something he does now, with or without his words written in front of him, with no noticeable sign of a stutter.
The broadminded way the community dealt with its multiracial and ethnic makeup, in a time of segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North, was so special it taught him not to be a racist. “My grandmother was a racist,” he says. “She taught me defensive racism. I had to unlearn a lot of it when I met those Finnish kids. I had to learn that all white people weren’t bad.” Later he says of his classmates: “I liked them all,” rounding out the word “all” so that it sounds like it has encircling arms.
In the bubble that was Brethren back in the 1940’s, one student who’d moved in from the city had talked the school staff into letting her bring in a Jamaican band for a dance. “It was like Brethren had the equivalent of hip-hop,” says Jones, laughing. More amazing, Jones remembers that interracial couples could date, providing, he says, that “they were serious with each other—very serious.”
The tolerance was so complete, Jones says he almost took it for granted, at least until the day Crouch went to treat him to lunch at a restaurant in Traverse City—the first time Jones had ever been to a “fine” restaurant. Lunch never happened, however, because the teacher and his student were told colored people weren’t served there. “It hurt, but you know, Donald didn’t make a big fuss about it.” Jones says. Adding, “It cooled us off. We were out giving public speeches expressing idealism and all that.”