After sixth grade, Johnnie W. Jones dropped out of school. It was shortly after World War II, and he needed to help support his family in Picayune, Mississippi.
But Jones didn’t turn his back on education. Not by a long shot.
On Friday, the 83-year-old Jones will receive his doctorate in social work at LSU. He’s not stopping there. He hopes to begin law school next fall.
“One of the guys who climbed Mount Everest — I don’t remember his name — when someone asked him why did he do it, he said because the mountain was there,” Jones said. “That’s pretty much my attitude toward knowledge. I’m pursuing it because it’s there.”
He said he first noticed the value of an education in the Marine Corps, which he joined in 1953. The high school graduates were getting better duties, so Jones attended night school to earn his diploma. Then, he started taking junior college classes before being deployed as a sergeant to two combat tours in Vietnam. Discovering that LSU offered correspondence courses, Jones continued his education from Vietnam.
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After returning stateside, Jones earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Hawaii. Upon retiring from the Marines in 1973, Jones came to LSU and completed a master’s degree in social work in 1975. He immediately pursued a doctorate in sociology and came within nine semester hours of completing the coursework before economic issues changed his direction again.
Jones, who had been working in a restaurant and supporting a family with three children, said he got an offer to work with the Louisiana Department of Corrections. The opportunity was too good to pass up. In 2006, he retired as warden at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women.
Having reached his eighth decade, Jones returned to school in two directions. He became an assistant professor of criminal justice at Southern University, where he is still on the faculty, and started pursuing a doctorate. Although a health setback required a waiver to allow him to complete the work in the required seven years, he kept at it.
“All of the students I have classes with, practically all of them are old enough to be my grandchildren, and they find it amazing that I would be subjecting myself to that kind of mental torture at my age where I’m retired from the Marines, retired from Corrections,” Jones said. “Why are you doing this? I can’t explain it to them.
“Age is an artificial constraint. There’s nothing magical about 65, 75, 95, 105. Your behavior, your activities should be guided by your physical fitness and your mental fitness. If you’re mentally fit and physically fit, you should keep on pushing. … We’ve been so socialized to believe that once you hit a certain age, I’ve done my thing, so I’m going to sit back and enjoy life. OK, if that’s your thing, that’s your thing. But to me, age doesn’t mean that much. It’s whether or not I have the ability to be doing the things I need to be doing.”
In August, Jones successfully defended his doctoral dissertation about the role religion plays for African-American families when they encounter racism.
“Johnnie Jones is resilience personified,” said Cassandra Chaney, associate professor at the LSU School of Social Work.
Jones has no plans to practice law, but wants the law degree for the same reason he pursued the doctorate — for the knowledge.
“It’s my intent to pursue higher education as long as I’m physically and mentally able to do so,” he said. “I don’t plan on stopping.”