Thanksgiving is a season when we count our greatest blessings, the family and friends who surround us and those who have gone ahead to their eternal reward.
Many of us are fortunate to have a special person who sees hidden qualities in us, who goes above and beyond to guide and inspire us, who is a catalyst for divining our interests and capabilities, who warrants the honorific title of mentor. Mine was a long-time government professor at Shippensburg University, Dr. Hugh Jones, who regrettably passed away recently.
It is hard to guess how many students he profoundly impacted. Spend any time around his office, and students were checking in with him and he was checking on the rest. Year after year after year.
What I always believed to be a high recommendation was that he made you learn whether you intended to or not. No one can ever forget being fixed with his trademark stare over the top of his glasses. You felt the need to produce or vamoose. He made sure you mastered the fundamentals, all the people, places, and principles necessary to be well-versed in the subject. But that was only the ground floor of knowledge. We would be prodded to explore motivations and maneuverings, to think through how individuals came to power and how they pulled the levers of public responsibility.
Sure, he had his leanings and biases on current and past leaders. But he measured folks by their capacity rather than their governing philosophy or party registration.
He was equally versed in every branch of government, at every level, but his specialty was constitutional law. As a sophomore, I waltzed into Con Law I, a course I was not really eligible to take. He skeptically asked if I wanted to be there. My naïve response was it sounded interesting, so I would take my chances. Naturally, it was a beast of a course. The material was deep and demanding.
The highest hurdle was the paper he assigned, which involved one of the lesser justices on the court and a case where he wrote the majority opinion. The term of art was judicial causation – the paper was meant to determine what made that justice write that opinion. There was no book from which to glean the answer. The basic research tools back then were relatively Stone Age, amounting to microfilm and the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. You had to read a lot, become familiar with the time and politics and personalities, and then come up with defensible deductions. One paper taught analytical skills for a lifetime.
Many years later, I asked if he still assigned such a paper. He chuckled, and said something to the effect that university administrators increasingly worried about retention rates would not appreciate having undergraduates jumping off bridges.
He had been taught by some academic giants. Their books would serve as the backbone of his courses. These proved to be volumes worth keeping and rereading later. I had a shelf full, because between undergraduate and graduate work, I took seven of his courses.
His decisive contribution came when he landed for me a 7-month internship I did not deserve. That opportunity launched my professional career and my life. The only way to express gratitude for such an incredible turn is to pay it forward.
When I was a grad student seeking a degree in Mass Communications, there was the chance to take an administrative law class with him. There were only three of us in the class, but he went at us as though there were 30 students. There was no place to hide, and no chance to skip physically or mentally.
That class provided an unexpected lesson and experience for life. Because we could pile into one vehicle, we took a trip to D.C. to watch oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. Seeing legal exposition and interrogation between some of the best minds in America conducted at the highest level was impressive and unforgettable. The complexity in sorting through the collision of rights in the cases the court hears was immensely instructive.
As I settled into professional life, he extended frequent invitations to talk with his classes or to serve on a panel for a larger group. I always made time to do so. He would invariably pop me with politically tricky questions, just to test that my analytical skills had not atrophied.
Then along came a big surprise. He gave me an opportunity to teach a graduate class, even though I had no experience running a classroom for a semester. Some of his colleagues probably never forgave him that indiscretion. How many times do we encounter that level of trust? And I knew something else – when he came in to evaluate me, there was going to be no friendly benefit of the doubt given. I needed to be at the top of my game.
He became my trusted pipeline for talent. I interviewed numerous Shippensburg University graduates for jobs or internships. Some students he would send, sometimes I put in a call for prospects, and sometimes folks wandered in of their own volition. He was eminently reliable in his judgments of a person’s strengths and weaknesses.
One of my “trap” interview questions was to ask if they had taken any courses with Hugh Jones. If they had: what did you think of him and what would he say about you? If they had not: why not? A surprising number confessed to avoiding him because he was rumored to be too hard and they were concerned about their grade point average. They received credit for candor, but not so much for interviewing strategy.
Oftentimes, the next generation of professors views the older hands as relics of a more bucolic age, or as museum pieces to be dusted and shown occasionally. Toward Hugh Jones, there was more of the respect, reverence, and awe for a wise elder statesman.
Several months before Hugh Jones passed away, state Senator Lisa Baker (another grateful beneficiary of his tutelage and guidance) and I went down to Chambersburg for a three-hour dinner. Trading notes on current events, getting his perspective on changes in government, jurisprudence, and academia, strolling constantly down memory lane, learning details about his youth and education he had not shared before, we were happy to see he was still watching, still processing, and had forgotten very little of the detail from a long career. Best of all, age had not tamed his candor or sharp wit. We made plans for a follow-up rendezvous that was sadly not to be.
When I read today of the partisans who are dismissive of colleges and universities as incubators of socialism and professors as serial indoctrinators, I can only surmise they never had instructors with the character and intellect of Hugh Jones. When I see those with little or no understanding of the role, purpose, and work of the federal courts, those who dismiss the exceptional qualifications of nominees and denounce every decision at odds with their philosophy, my reaction is much the same. They should have taken classes from a Hugh Jones.
This is why my blessing list at Thanksgiving included Dr. Hugh Jones, an inspirational instructor whose lessons I never forgot and a friend I never lost touch with.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.