New Georgetown College President William A. Jones quickly learned that he would go to college while growing up in Kensee Hollow in Whitley County.
He has done more than that, graduating from Berea College then working there on its Sesquicentennial $162 million fundraising drive, various administrative positions at other universities, including most recently president at Bethany College in Kansas. That journey has now brought him back to Kentucky where he was introduced as Georgetown College’s 25th president Wednesday.
“It is an amazing honor to be standing in front of you,” Jones said. “It may be a little cloudy outside later, but like Stephen Foster wrote, the sun is shining bright in my life today. It is so exciting to be here and be a Tiger.”
Jones touted his humble Kentucky roots in answering why come to Georgetown College, why higher education and how he can connect with alumni, students and their families.
“Before I answer why come to Georgetown, I have to answer why higher education,” he said. “I grew up in Kensee Hollow (north of Jellico, Tennessee) in southeastern Kentucky — Whitley County. If you are from Kentucky, unless you are from Lexington or Louisville, you say what county you are from.
“My parents valued higher education as a way out of poverty. My mom was 13 years old when she got married. She was an eighth-grade dropout. My dad dropped out in ninth-grade to make a living for his family in the coal mines,” he said. “The thing that saved my life, literally transformed my life, was when I was in third grade. I was 8 years old and my parents started telling me ‘You will be a college graduate.’ That was a lesson for my life in so many moments growing up. I remember digging a hole for a new outhouse with my dad, taking a little break, and my dad said, ‘You know son…college graduates have indoor plumbing.’ I was walking back from Jellico with my Mom and sister with our groceries after doing our trading and she said, ‘You know son…college graduates have cars.’ That was the lesson regularly in my life. I would not be here today without my mom and dad telling me ‘You will be a college graduate.’
“That’s why I work in higher education. I know the transforming power of a place like Georgetown College that can transform a student’s life. So whether you are a first-generation student in your family to come to Georgetown to get a degree, it will change you and make you a better person. You will have an expanded mind and heart. If you are the third or fourth generation student to attend Georgetown, you know your heart and mind are expanded here and it is a privilege and an honor for me to be part of that.”
Jones was not looking to leave Bethany College, which was facing difficult times when he took the reins, he said.
“It was excruciating because here was this wonderful opportunity to go back home and serve at Georgetown College or stay where I had been for three years and invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears to help save that institution,” he said. “Bethany College was on probation when I got there and I had one year to get them off. I am proud that we were able to do that. Bethany College’s undergraduate enrollment has grown this fall 30 percent over the three years. We had some fundraising successes for new tennis courts and renovating a historic residence hall.”
The history and tradition of Georgetown ultimately won out.
“Five Rhodes Scholars, nearly 40 Fulbright Scholars…that is an incredible achievement,” he said. “Six national championships. It is so exciting to be part of that and offer a championship-level education. I think those experiences at small liberal arts colleges has helped prepare me to lead Georgetown.”
Jones has known of Georgetown College all his life, he said. In fact, the first date he went on was a Cumberland-Georgetown College basketball game.
“Cumberland won and I’m looking forward to paying them back for that,” he said.
He thinks he is a person that has pretty simple tastes, such as enjoying a Tiger Burger at Fava’s, he said.
Jones wants to spend the first year learning and hearing stories from alumni, students, faculty and others and getting to know his colleagues and hearing what they want him to know, he said.
“I want to listen a lot more than I talk this first year. I want to visit the board members in your hometowns and learn how I can help you help us. I want to meet alumni across the state and country,” he said. “I can tell you at Bethany I traveled a lot, probably 50-70% of my time was out meeting alumni, friends, prospective students and inviting them to join us. I intend to do that here.”
Search Committee Chair Guthrie True said there were several things that stood out to him and the committee in selecting Jones.
First, he serves as an example of what students of any means can achieve.
“For those students who come from a background of plenty, Will Jones will serve as a constant reminder that to whom much is given, much is required,” True said. “For those who come from a relative background of want, I think he will serve as a shining example of if they will apply their intellect and energy, with their hard work, they will leave Georgetown College and can accomplish anything God wants them to accomplish.”
He also said Will and his wife Amy are people of faith, have life and work experiences in a broad variety of faith and denominational environments.
“To borrow a phrase from Will, if we strive to continue to be an institution that grows not just the mind, but the heart, that is a necessity,” he said. “Will is not someone who shies away from a difficult challenge. Taking on the presidency of Bethany College was a huge undertaking. There were others who declined to take it, and I know there were others who advised Will to not take the job. I was impressed that he did not shy away from that task. He and Amy have said it was a calling.”
He liked the fact Will’s skillset meets Georgetown’s needs.
“I felt strongly that it didn’t make sense to bring a president to Georgetown College who reinforced what we already do well,” True said. “We have a need to raise funds whether it is for buildings, scholarships or endowments. And we need to recruit students. And these are his strong suits.”
They also bring family.
“I guess Will thought to come back to Kentucky he had to bring a basketball team. They have six children, so they have enough to field a team and a sub,” True said to laughter. They have a senior, two juniors, a freshman, a seventh-grader and a fifth-grader. “They know what it is like to reach out to teens and pre-teens, our customers.”
Jones also wants to get to know the people in Georgetown, Scott County and Toyota to build relationships, he said, and he was greeted by Scott County Judge-Executive Joe Pat Covington, Rick Hesterberg representing Toyota, Georgetown Mayor Tom Prather, State Sen. Damon Thayer and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. Covington and Prather both pledged to continue working with Georgetown College and build on the relationships they have had for years. Prather presented Jones with a key to the city and Georgetown lapel pins for William and Amy.
They also credited outgoing President Dr. M. Dwaine Greene for being the “right president at the right time” to build a strong foundation for Jones to build on.
True, Board of Trustees Chair Dave Adkisson and others also credited Provost Dr. Rosemary Allen for “a steady hand” as interim president,
True said the final thing that stood out from talking to one of Jones’ references is what the reference said.
“Will Jones is the future. That stuck with me. As this institution looks at its 190 years of history, as we look to the future, I find it reassuring that the silhouette in front of us is Will Jones as our president.”
Steve McClain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.