The city of Key West has lost one of its hardest working former employees and a true southern gentleman.
Former Assistant City Manager John Jones, 88, passed away Tuesday after a long illness, city spokeswoman Alyson Crean said. Jones worked with the city from 1993 until his retirement in 2008.
Jones, an engineer, was the city’s go-to person for many issues, from creating the first city-built homeless shelter to hiring the first official chicken catcher.
“Although he was an engineer in training and at heart, he became the go-to city official when it came to dealing with chickens,” Crean wrote on the city’s Facebook page. “That’s why, at his retirement party, he was presented with a (chicken) painting by Pam Hobbs as a reminder off his efforts. John was a straight-talking, dedicated public servant. Our deep condolences to his family and friends.”
Crean, a former reporter, referred to Jones as the “most quotable, straight forward city employee.”
Jones garnered international attention in 2004 when he declared on National Public Radio that he would drive a truckload of chickens to NPR reporter Michele Norris’ Washington office if she agreed to take 200 or more, telling her, “you could even put some on the lawn at the Capitol.”
Current City Manager Greg Veliz called Jones a mentor and a maverick.
“John took me under his wing,” Veliz said. “We were both get-things-done kind of guys. He loved the city of Key West and he certainly always got things done.”
Jones was never afraid of hard work or taking on the daunting tasks that others shy away from. He started his working life as a ditch digger at age 14.
Jones was born in Arkansas and raised as a small child on the family estate in Our Town, Ala. Jones’ father was in construction and the family bounced around both Alabama and Georgia, often sleeping in tents and camps put together by construction companies. He attended 26 elementary schools as a child. Jones grew up as a hell-raiser, jumping freight trains and getting into fights, he told The Key West Citizen in 2004.
In 1944, Jones moved with his family to Key West. His mother married Sammy Higgs and she opened a beauty shop on Grinnell Street. Jones, his brother and sister would travel with their black nanny, Claudie, through the pre-desegregated South in the back of buses, he said.
Jones would move away to finish high school in Georgia and then on to the Auburn University in Alabama. He enlisted in the Navy and bounced between Key West and other places for the next several years. After finally finishing college and earning an industrial engineering degree, Jones moved back to Key West and worked at a television repair shop. However, it wouldn’t last and he left Key West again.
“I had too much education to be just a television repair man,” Jones said in 2004.
Jones went on to form and work for multimillion-dollar international engineering companies and live in places like Ecuador, where international dignitaries would be dinner guests.
After a particularly brutal winter in northern Georgia in 1993, Jones returned to the Southernmost City. He went from earning more than $100,00 a year to about $60,000, a sacrifice he said he is more than happy to live with.
“I live in a Conch shack. I cut my yard with a weed whacker and I bitch about that, but we [he and his wife Ruth] love it,” he said in 2004.
Jones looked for a job while staying at the Ocean Key House, and soon landed a position as the city’s director of engineering. Jones said he took a hands-on approach to the job.
When the city wanted to know how the seagrass was doing in the Riviera Canal project, Jones dove in the water to find out. He got back in the water and personally inspected the decaying cement jetties off Smathers Beach and he braved the waters of the “toxic triangle” to look at the pilings off Grinnell Street.
In 1997, Jones moved into his current position as assistant city manager working for then City Manager Julio Avael.
Jones did find himself at odds with the law at the end of his career, but violated the rule for what he thought was the best interest of his community.
In 2007, state prosecutors charged Jones with two counts of impersonating a state licensed official, reportedly for signing two temporary certificates of occupancy. One was for the Rum Barrel restaurant’s upstairs bar, so its grand opening could be held on schedule in February 2005. The other was for a trailer office for the state Department of Children and Families, whose building was flooded in Hurricane Wilma.
Jones justified the former, saying the restaurant paid off-duty firefighters to be there as a precaution. The latter allowed the state social services agency to continue helping needy families who otherwise would have had nowhere else to go, according to Jones and the agency’s district administrator, Elena Herrera.
“I put the health and safety of this community first,” Jones said at the time. “I did what I thought I had to do. I still don’t know what else I could have done.”