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J.B. Jones

Dr. J.B. Jones

Mechanical Engineering
Class of 1945, BS

To many of his students during his academic career, he was known as “SP minus 1.” To his musical friends, he is touted for playing a mean-sounding woodwind instrument. At Virginia Tech, if you mention the name J.B. Jones, a legacy in the mechanical engineering (ME) department comes to mind.

Jones was the department head of ME from 1964 until 1983. He was a graduate of the Class of 1945, but actually received his ME diploma in 1944, as many of his peers did, pushing through school during the World War II era. His leadership of one of the original departments of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering came right after his uncle James Bernard Jones had served in this role for three decades. His father Alonzo L. Jones received his bachelor’s degree in ME in 1918, and his cousin, Mary Virginia “Prim” Jones, daughter of James Bernard Jones, was the third female graduate of ME, receiving her diploma from Virginia Tech in 1961, going on to record a host of firsts for women in engineering.

This heritage makes the name Jones iconic in ME, and today alumni are establishing the J.B. Jones Legacy Endowment, specifically for his multiple contributions over decades of work.

While an administrator, J.B. Jones never failed to be in the classroom, choosing to teach the 8:00 a.m. classes when he found students to be alert and the classrooms were the cleanest. Afterwards, he could proceed with his administrative duties throughout the day. These students were the ones who nicknamed him “SP minus 1,” accounting for how he graded otherwise perfect technical papers, taking one point off each time there was a misspelled word.

Jones was born to be a VPI man. He never suffered from the dilemma of what field to study, as he grew up in West Orange, New Jersey, spending many a night and weekends with his workaholic Hokie father. They would visit power plants where his father tended to concerns about the facilities. Or they might travel to his dad’s family in Virginia, where most of the men worked with the railroad.

As an impressionable youngster, one of his most fun recollections was a visit to a brewery where each employee had a cup and received free tastings, possibly accounting for Jones’ eventual 25-year membership in the Blacksburg German Band.

So when the time came to receive his formal education in engineering, VPI was his solid choice, even though he received a full scholarship to another university. “It was a lot cheaper to come to VPI with its cost of living,” Jones recalled, a truism still heard more than seven decades later, from many of the out-of-state applicants to the Land Grant University.

As a student at Virginia Tech in the early 1940s, Jones depicted the ideals of a Renaissance man. His first day on campus, he was unloading his two saxophones and a clarinet when he was spotted by a fellow musician who approached him in a panic-stricken demeanor. The reason was that the classic Virginia Tech dance band, the Southern Colonels, had a job in just a few days at the nearby Mountain Lake Resort, but they needed a saxophone player. The conversation about J.B.’s abilities led the upperclassman to scramble to find him a uniform, and he played the job with the band.

Jones was already making a name for himself within days of his arrival. Afterwards, he decided as an engineering student he could not afford the time it would take to remain a Southern Colonel, but he would play with the regimental band, the Highty Tighties for the next three years.

As a freshman, he sought ways to use his penchant for writing, joining the yearbook and student newspaper staffs. At The Virginia Tech, the precursor to today’s Collegiate Times, he learned copy-editing skills and his way around a newsroom. “Usually the editor and the top editors on the paper could talk to the administration,” Jones recalled, and when he became the editor-in-chief, he was able to speak with then President Julian Burruss about issues on a weekly basis.

One particular newspaper incident still stays very fresh in Jones’ 90-year old crystal clear mind: when the Commandant of the Corps of Cadets learned that the Class of 1943 was going to be assigned active duty immediately, the newspaper editors were able to talk the head of the military into allowing The Virginia Tech to announce the decision in a banner headline the following morning. Jones remembered proudly that everyone on campus that morning was saying, “Have you seen The Virginia Tech?”

Beyond his communication and musical skills, Jones also served as the Virginia Tech Honor Court Judge, and was a member of several honor and social affiliations including the German Club, Tau Beta Pi, Pi Tau Sigma, and Phi Kappa Phi, the most selective honor society serving all academic disciplines.

When he graduated, his first stop was the U.S. Department of War where he remained until the World War II armistice was signed. While he was there, he discovered there was a problem he couldn’t determine a solution for, and decided he had “better go back to school.” So, in 1945, he started his master’s degree at Purdue University, and by 1951 he had his doctorate.

Throughout that time he was also able to teach on the Purdue faculty. When he received his doctorate, he obtained a leave of absence from Purdue to work with General Electric Company, followed by shorter periods with General Motors and Babcock & Wilcox Company. After returning to Purdue, he was promoted to full professor in 1957.

Jones and his wife Jane, whom he met while they were both engineering students at Virginia Tech, were content with their lives in the Hoosier State, but Virginia Tech came knocking on their door, asking if Jones might be interested in the ME department headship. For multiple reasons, his answer was “no” but a message was relayed back to him, saying that Virginia Tech’s President T. Marshal Hahn wanted him to come visit for a few days.

Thinking he could not turn down such a request from the University’s president, Jones hopped on a plane, and during his visit spent about five hours with the physicist turned administrator. “He met with me one on one, and impressed me with his clear distinctions among what he had already accomplished, what he was working on to achieve soon, and what he hoped to do in the long-term,” Jones said. Hahn’s forthrightness and accessibility changed his mind, and he was soon leaving Purdue for the Blacksburg campus.

Arriving in 1964, Jones started making some enhancements to the already valued ME diploma. He met with companies to provide fellowships for the students working on their graduate degrees. Jones’ plan was to streamline the process as the norm at that time was to have grad students spend four to five years obtaining a master’s while they worked for the department as instructors. He also organized ME’s efforts with the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE), and one year had 11 undergraduates working in Europe through the program. Under Jones’ leadership, the ME department won a national award from IAESTE for its participation.

In 1985, PC Week wrote, “The hills of Virginia are the last place you would expect to find an oasis of high technology. Yet technology is here, perhaps in greater abundance than any other school in the country.” The magazine was referring to Virginia Tech’s strong commitment to technology, including the successful $2 million grant obtained by Jones, working with Arvid Myklebust and others, to develop a computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing laboratory. At the time, they received an unheard of $2 million grant from IBM to facilitate the construction of the lab that has since been modernized and remains in use.

Jones also worked to change some of the mundane but serious obstacles to improving the department’s quality such as arcane state purchasing and personnel rules. “The challenges changed during the years, but it was always fun,” Jones said.

He stepped down as department head in 1983 but still held his Lingan S. Randolph Professorship, presented in recognition of his effective teaching, and sustained and distinguished scholarship. In 1988, he formally retired but laughingly said he “never could get people to realize I had.” Maybe the reason was because he chose this time to write a third book, Engineering Thermodynamics, co-authored by Regina E. Dugan, another noted ME graduate and the first woman to head the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He also spent two years co-chairing a National Research Council subcommittee on engineering design.

Jones led several fund-raising activities for the College of Engineering, the Alumni Association, and the Corps of Cadets. In 1991, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers awarded him the James Harry Potter Gold Medal for his contributions in thermodynamics.

In 2008, Virginia Tech presented him with its Ruffner Medal, for his notable and distinguished service to the university. He received university-wide outstanding teacher awards at both Purdue and Virginia Tech.

“J.B. is among the most accomplished, faithful, successful, and influential alumni in Virginia Tech history … He is universally revered and respected by the many engineers he has taught and mentored,” said Robert Parker, current ME department head.

Class of: 1945
Year Inducted into Academy: 2014