Friends, colleagues and family members of former Mecklenburg County manager Harry Jones said goodbye Monday at a funeral broken both by sobs and knowing chuckles over his life.
Jones, 67, died Wednesday after a struggle of more than five years against pancreatic cancer. He served as Mecklenburg’s first black county manager from 2000 to 2013.
Those close to him, including elected officials and county staff, packed Little Rock A.M.E. Zion Church for a service that lasted more than two hours. They came away with remembrances – some in his own words – of a man who regarded public service as his lifelong calling, and in his last years found healing in his faith.
“Harry served as a model of what a professional public servant looks like,” state Sen. Joel Ford of Charlotte, one of several elected officials who wrote personal tributes to Jones’ family.
Jones loved life – and a good party, said his son, Harry Jones Jr. He stuck by his principles, leading a student walkout when his Southern Pines high school wouldn’t lower the flag after Martin Luther King’s assassination. The flag was lowered.
“Sometimes he would love you a little hard and a little tight,” Jones Jr. said, “but nonetheless he would hold on.”
The oldest of three siblings in a military family that moved often, Jones was called The Kid when he entered 10th grade in Southern Pines, where met his wife Becky. Running for student body president at Sandhills Community College, he told fellow students that “serving you is my greatest wealth.”
After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill, he went on to public administration positions in Texas and North Carolina, racking up professional honors along the way. In December, Jones appeared before Mecklenburg County commissioners to be named to the Order of the Hornet, the county’s highest honor.
Jones himself spoke Monday, through a recording of his remarks at a recent event to honor him. The evening came days after treatments for his cancer had been stopped, but Jones spoke instead of pride in and gratitude for his life.
“I’m not a wealthy man, but I’m a fulfilled man because of what I’ve been able to endure and for what Mecklenburg County has accomplished,” he said in the recording.
His mourners stood and applauded.
Just after Jones’ cancer diagnosis in December 2011, Little Rock’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Dwayne Walker saw the county manager’s family in his pews. Walker’s wife had been told she had multiple myeloma that same week.
Walker’s theme that day: “ ‘I’m getting up from here,’ and Mr. Jones took that as his marching orders,” the minister said.
Jones took his faith to heart, memorizing scripture and counseling other cancer patients as he fought his own disease. In 2015, he wrote a book about his journey, “How Cancer Cured My Soul.”
The book quoted a line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption, about a wrongly-accused prison inmate. “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really, get busy living or get busy dying,” the line goes.
Jones, who is survived by his wife, four children and five grandchildren, embraced living.
“Harry Jones had persistent hope,” Walker said. “He turned what was a gruesome diagnosis into hope. Even when pain came into his body and he had all the doctor visits and the pain became intense, he persisted.
“He kept his hope until his last breath.”