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ASU’s first chemistry PhD receives Milton K. Curry education award

Jesse W. Jones reflects on a legacy of dedication and inspiration

Side-by-side portraits of ASU's first PhD recipient Jesse Jones. The portrait on the left is a young Jones in a cap and gown, while the portrait on the right is a more recent photo of an older Jones holding an award.

Jesse Jones, ASU's first chemistry PhD recipient. Photos courtesy ASU's School of Molecular Sciences and Jesse Jones

February 27, 2023

Intrepid, innovative and inspiring describe Jesse Jones, the first person to receive a PhD in chemistry from Arizona State University, in 1963.

Following his own successful academic career, Jones became a dedicated professor, helping to increase the number of minority students who when on to graduate school and medical school.

This month, Jones was honored by a citywide group of ministers in his hometown of Dallas, Texas, who presented him with the Milton K. Curry education award.

A leap of faith

Jones came to ASU in 1958, invited by Roland K. Robbins, upon learning ASU would soon have new doctoral degrees. Married with three children at the time, Jones initially lived with his family in on-campus housing but had to move when it was torn down to make room for the construction of Gammage Auditorium.

Renting off-campus housing proved to be a challenge. After being denied housing multiple times in Tempe because of being Black, Jones and his wife took a “vacation” and went back to Texas with their children while he searched for a place to live so he could complete his education. Eventually, in faith, they packed up their car and headed back to Arizona, not knowing where they would live.

“We left east Texas without a place to stay,” Jones recalled. “At the time, we had three children. ... We were in contact with a realtor, and, as a graduate student, needed a place to stay with no money down. On the drive back, we would stop along the way and call the real estate agent, and he told us to come and there would be a place for us to stay. So on his word, we drove on and he showed us a place in Phoenix that became our home while I finished my degree at ASU.”

At ASU, Jones’ research focused on the chemistry of purines, which was an exciting area in organic chemistry at the time. After earning his PhD in 1963, Jones moved to Tyler, Texas, where he taught undergraduate chemistry at Texas College, a historically Black college.

The highlight of a career

Although he knew his research would suffer from his decision to move back to Texas, Jones felt it important to help others.

“The first hot plate we had was an old waffle iron,” Jones remembers of this time teaching at Texas College.

“Not having any graduate students was also a challenge. The work that we did was with undergraduates. In spite of that, we were funded by several grants, which allowed us to continue our research.

“We discovered that our students who went on to graduate school did much better in their research because of the scarcity of materials and the creativity they had to use out of necessity. At times, we would have to drive 100 miles from Tyler to Dallas in order to get chemicals. Things were not prepared and handed to our students, and that gave them an edge in terms of their research capability.”

Jones estimates that, at the time, they likely had more Black women majoring in chemistry than other major institutions around the country. Additionally, he helped to increase the number of minority students who when on to graduate school and medical school, which he considers to be a significant accomplishment.

“The success of my students is the highlight of my career,” Jones said, “because they would go on and transform their communities.”

Commitment to serving others

Community and family have been constant themes throughout Jones’ life.

“We had a philosophy that because our students came from disadvantaged areas, and at that time our children were getting old enough to begin thinking about college, we chose to live right in the community with similar conditions to the students we taught. If I should have expectations of my students to succeed, from whatever their backgrounds, the same conditions and expectations should be good enough for my children as well,” he said.

Jones and his wife had a total of seven children, and his devotion to chemistry and education can be seen in their lives. Six of their children majored in chemistry, and he had the privilege of teaching all six of them. Out of those six, two are physicians, two are college professors, one works for Exxon Mobil and one went into psychology. The seventh also has a successful career in real estate.

Jones continued his professional career at Bishop College from 1967 through 1988, where he was principal investigator on several projects, including the National Institutes of Health Minority Biomedical Research Program and a Department of Defense Contract involving the preparation of potential antimalarial drugs. Jones was the director of the Minority Institution Science Improvement Program and chair of the Division of Natural and Mathematical Sciences at Bishop College. In 1988, hired by Baylor University, Jones continued as a professor of chemistry until his retirement in 2021.

In addition to a fruitful academic career, Jones spent 15 years as an elected official in the Texas House of Representatives, where he provided leadership in his community, including on issues related to higher education.

“Successes in government are shared,” Jones said. “We had many successes over the years. I’m proud to have been the House sponsor for the creation of a state-supported school between Dallas and Austin, which became the University of North Texas at Dallas in 2009.”

An enduring example

Throughout his life, Jones has felt that he needed to take his share of the load by setting an example, whether with regard to civil rights, education or in his community. Jones has been an active member of Good Street Baptist Church since 1968, where he still uses his skills as a teacher. His oldest student is 107; some are in their 90s, and “a few youngsters” are in their 80s.

After receiving the Milton K. Curry education award this month, Jones reflected on the enduring importance of good teachers.

“Whatever success I’ve enjoyed is because I was given strong mentors throughout my career,” Jones said. “They set an example for me early in my career, nurtured me, and saw hope and promise. Students today need the same. They need someone they can look up to and admire.”

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