Teacher. Scholar. Friend.
Jim Jones taught three generations of FSU students to love American history and became a legend in the process
By Tom Morgan
One day, when James P. “Jim” Jones, was still teaching at Florida State University, he wasn’t feeling particularly well: He passed out in class and bumped his head on a wall. Everything turned out fine but Jones insisted on memorializing the event, using a marker to draw a black circle where he hit his head and joking, “This will be the mark I leave on the university.”
After 57 years of teaching, 21,000 students, nine teaching awards, and seven books, it’s safe to say Jones had a much larger and enduring impact on Florida State than a bit of dented drywall.
Jones, who died in June at age 89, is remembered by friends and family as an unwavering supporter of Civil Rights and social justice, the author of countless bawdy limericks about historical figures, and an avid baseball fan who kept statistics on just about everything. He’s also remembered by generations of FSU students as their favorite teacher.
Katherine Mooney, James P. Jones Associate Professor of History at Florida State, said Jones’ personality was the driving force behind why his classes on World War II and the Civil War became famous on campus. His primary objective, regardless of the material he was teaching, was to form a connection to students.
“He truly liked students. He thought they were interesting and worthy of respect as thinkers and he was eager to hear what they thought,” Mooney said. “Jim’s teaching philosophy came from his high school baseball coach: ‘Just get up there and make contact.’”
Andrew Zwilling, assistant professor of strategy and war at the U.S. Naval War College, earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. in history at Florida State and still marvels over Jones’ recall despite teaching literal generations of students.
“What always surprised me was his ability to remember students from decades before. It was not a rare occurrence to have someone tell him their parents, grandparents, or both took the same class with him,” Zwilling said. “Jim would even remember their names and how well they did in the class. On more than one occasion, he would recount what a student wrote in an essay more than 30 years before and what grade he gave it.”
Zwilling also witnessed firsthand how Jones’ masterful story-telling brought his astonishing knowledge of American history to life.
“There was a reason his classes were constantly over capacity and students would beg to be added. The narratives he wove with a simple list of key terms, and maybe a map, were incredible,” Zwilling said.
Jones was a subject-matter expert who never stopped learning — he consumed newly published books and updated lecture notes frequently.
“When you went into his house, there would be multiple towers of books next to the couch, always changing. He never stopped trying to improve his teaching,” Zwilling said.
Jones devoted his classes and scholarly work to busting myths about the Civil War and slavery, including ideas that were still commonplace in the South when he graduated with his doctorate in 1960.
“He held our attention so well you could hear a pin drop during his lectures, and our students couldn’t get enough. Jim was still offering his insight, his wisdom, his thoughts to hundreds of students, so many that we had to find extra-large lecture halls in the community to accommodate the crowds.”
— Debra Herman
“He knew the war was an engine of destructive myth-making,” said Ed Gray, chair of the FSU Department of History. “The idea that the Civil War was some sort of ‘lost cause,’ a justified and principled stand for constitutional ideals, or that the Confederacy was a noble and worthy answer to northern aggression — James found in these canards fuel for his fierce devotion to the truth, which is the Civil War was a war undertaken in defense of an abhorrent institution, chattel slavery.”
Jones retired from teaching full-time in May 2014 after 57 years but continued to work at the FSU-affiliated Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which offers classes targeted at seniors in the Tallahassee community, from 2015 to 2020.
OLLI director Debra Herman said several of Jones’ former FSU students returned to take his OLLI classes, despite already knowing the material. Former FSU President Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte could often be found in the front row.
“He held our attention so well you could hear a pin drop during his lectures and our students couldn’t get enough,” Herman said. “Jim was still offering his insight, his wisdom, his thoughts to hundreds of students, so many that we had to find extra-large lecture halls in the community to accommodate the crowds.”
Jones’ teaching legacy extends beyond FSU and Tallahassee. He’s had a large impact on the U.S. Army, particularly on the Department of History at the United States Military Academy at West Point, according to Col. Matthew Morton, assistant professor at the U.S. Army War College, who earned his master’s and Ph.D. in history at FSU.
Jones served on the dissertation committees of no less than 16 army officers destined for teaching assignments at West Point. During their instructor tours at the academy, those Florida State alumni taught at least 350 cadets, Morton said.
“What Professor Jones taught us about these wars wasn’t nearly as important as the man he became every time he stepped behind the lectern,” Morton said. “Each of us, in Professor Jones, had a role model for what it means to teach with passion — passion that can infect the most ahistorical West Point cadet, Army major or young colonel here at the War College with an interest in history they did not have when they arrived in the classroom.”
Jones was also deeply passionate about Florida State, Mooney said, calling it one of the loves of his life. His vocal support of the institution, its people and accomplishments shaped the feelings of countless others, including her own when she arrived in 2014, ostensibly as Jones’ replacement.
“About five minutes after I arrived, it became clear that replacing Jim just wasn’t possible,” she said. “The best thing we all can do is to model ourselves on his example.”