He bustled round the campus of my alma mater as if life were a perpetual fast-walking competition. He walked like he had some place to be, and was five minutes late for wherever he was headed.
Yet, he'd never hesitate to stop and greet a student, exchange a handshake, share a smile and a word of encouragement, or tell a bawdy joke. He walked fast because that's just the way he was. He'd cheer himself hoarse at football games, and he could tailgate with the best of them. When he was in his sixties, I watched him catch a greased pig during Spring Fling, when kids a third his age couldn't. Horace Perry Jones spun at 78 rpm in a 33 1/3 world.
Slight, bespectacled, unassuming… you'd have never known he was a Marine Corps veteran of the Korean War.
But he was.
After Korea, he taught literature and coached soccer at a boy's school in England. One day the wanderlust hit him, and he took a sabbatical to see the world. He started out on his bike, determined to follow Alexander the Great's path of conquest across Europe and Asia. 18 months, 22 countries and 4 continents later, he finished. He was to regale a generation of students at Northeast Louisiana University with tales of that journey.
My favorite was the tale of the two German lads he shared part of the journey with, two strangers he met on the road. But no one stayed a stranger to H.P. Jones for long, and soon they became fast friends. They shared a couple of months on the road, sleeping in the open, only staying in a hotel or hostel on the rare occasions they had money to spend. As H.P. described them, Germans are a very fastidious folk. He said that every morning, rain or shine, they'd find some place to bathe. Be it a horse trough or a lake or even a ditch, they'd find some way to freshen up.
"Me," H.P. shrugged, "I could care less. I was content to bathe whenever we stopped at a hostel. The one thing I couldn't stand was to have fuzzy teeth, so I'd brush my teeth at every opportunity, but I wasn't near as fastidious as those German boys."
After a few weeks, they took to referring to him as knuspriger sinnspruch. He asked them what it meant, and they just chuckled and replied in English, "That is just our nickname for you."
And it was here that H.P. would pause, a twinkle in his eyes, and deliver the punch line: "Long after we parted ways, I looked it up in a German dictionary. Turns out, knuspriger sinnspruch means 'the crusty gnome' in German."
I met him as a freshman at Northeast Louisiana University in 1988. My older brother had given me one directive when enrolling: Whatever you do, get HP Jones for any course they have him listed for in the course catalog, even if it isn't required for your major.
I had missed all the deadlines for applying for financial aid, and barely had enough cash to cover my first semester's tuition, and none at all to cover books. H.P. listened intently to my sob story, marched me over to dean of admissions, and announced, "This young man wants an education, but he's broke, busted and disgusted. He screwed off in high school, coasted through his junior and senior year with only the easiest courses, and barely has a 3.0 GPA. But by God, he made a 31 on his ACT, and it'd be a damned shame to let that potential go to waste. See what you can do for him."
I walked out thirty minutes later with a four-year full scholarship.
H.P. taught history, and when I say "taught," I don't mean "read dry and sterile prose from a history book." You didn't memorize events and figures and timelines in any class Horace Perry Jones taught. This man didn't lecture, he performed.
He'd prowl the room like a caged tiger, chewing the scenery at every turn, breathing life into forgotten figures from dusty old tomes. His voice would rise and fall, from a whisper that left you straining to hear, to thundering Shakespearean oratory. Dr. Jones could recite the ingredients of a cereal box, and have 100 freshmen poised on the edge of their seats, absolutely enthralled, breathlessly anticipating just how much of the recommended daily allowance of riboflavin is included in a bowl of Frosted Flakes.
A year later, when I watched Dead Poet's Society, I was more than a little convinced that Robin Williams' character was modeled after H.P. Jones.
Except, H.P. Jones was a helluva lot more entertaining. He understood that learning is best accomplished between fits of laughter. And while entertaining, he was demanding, too. To earn an "A" in Western Civilization was no mean feat, but plenty of students did it, mainly because he taught them than learning could be fun.
In the second semester of my freshman year, I was showboating for some girls with my brother-in-law, and I fell off the back of a Honda Hurricane at 60 mph. I decorated 167 feet of asphalt with strips of my hide. And while I was sitting on the curb in front of the Quickee Mart, nursing my scrapes and sprains, Dr. Jones drove up.
He was shocked to see one of his students sitting broken and bleeding on the curb, but once he realized I wasn't seriously injured, he offered me a ride to the Emergency Department.
"I've got someone on the way already, thanks," I smiled ruefully. "Probably won't be in your class tomorrow, though."
He eyed me speculatively for a few seconds, reached out and picked up my right hand, and roughly flexed my fingers. "Hand seems to work enough to write with," he grinned. "Have your ass in class, ready to learn something."
And you know what? I was. My hands were too stiff to hold a pencil, and I could barely walk, but I was there. His was the only class I attended that day.
Yesterday, one of my readers emailed me to tell me that my old professor had died. He was 82 years old.
It's been twenty years since I've seen or spoken to him, but there is a piece of H.P. Jones in every lecture I deliver. Those of you who have heard me speak at conferences, attended one of my EMT or paramedic courses, or listened to me tell stories with a beer in my hand, you should know that I blatantly stole most of my schtick from a skinny little guy who taught history as if it were live theater.
Everything I want to be as a teacher, he was. He left a stamp on me that remains indelible even after twenty-five years.
Somewhere right now, I'll wager there is a packed lecture hall of angels eagerly listening to H.P. Jones tell Bible stories, and they're all perched on the edge of their seats, eager to hear what comes next.
And he'll having them eating out of the palm of his hand, even though every one of them already knows the stories by heart.