by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
Not all Dickinson movers and shakers hold a Dickinson degree. Take, for example, Beth Jones P’11, wife of President John E. Jones III ’77, P’11, and mother of 2011 graduate John Jones IV ’11. Just as she and her family have supported and remained closely involved with Dickinson for decades, Beth is actively involved as the college’s first lady in positive and impactful ways. And midway through her first official year as Dickinson’s first lady, she is embracing the role with warmth, enthusiasm and an extra dash of inspiration.
That’s important for the college, as spousal and family support can make a tremendous difference in the demanding life of a college president. Beth also embraces the opportunity to deepen her role at Dickinson through connections with students, faculty, staff and alumni and through her work with an emerging initiative to build community among generations of Dickinson women. We recently caught up with the busy first lady and asked her about herself, her family’s decision to take on a new chapter with Dickinson and what she enjoys most about her exciting new role. We also asked her about plans for a Women for Dickinson project and First Lady Initiative, now under discussion for rollout in coming years, to inspire students and alumni to see philanthropy as a means of excellence and service. Here’s what she had to say.
What do you most want people to know about you?
I think that people find that I’m friendly and rather forthright. I also have a motherly instinct, so it’s easy for me to share in the joy of the students.
Tell us a little about your educational path.
I was the first person from either side of my family to have the traditional college experience. (My father attended Penn State as an adult, on the GI Bill, after WWII.) I was the oldest of four children, and my family really didn’t know where to start to send a child to college, and we especially didn’t know anything about the benefits of a liberal-arts education. So my choices were limited to a state college, where I received a satisfactory education, but it was nothing like the wonderful and personal education here at Dickinson.
Also, as a young girl in the 1970s, my guidance counselor pushed teaching and nursing as the main opportunities available to me. I chose elementary education, and I love children, so it was a good fit for me. It is wonderful how the world has evolved since then. Now, women are encouraged to do and be anything that they want to be. I have two young granddaughters, and it makes my heart so happy to see that their world will be their oyster. The young women at Dickinson have every opportunity to be so well educated and prepared. I feel blessed to add anything I can add to their journey.
How did you and President Jones meet?
Well, that’s quite a story, but I will give you the brief version. We met at a party. I knew who John was, but he did not know me, so I went over and introduced myself. We had our first date a week later. In eight weeks we were engaged, and 11 months after we met we got married during Thanksgiving weekend. We will be married 41 years this year.
What would you like to share about your work as a teacher?
As a young elementary-ed graduate in the 1970s, I was very lucky to find full-time employment as a teacher. I taught in a small farm district northeast of Carlisle. In fact, the school was three rooms, with two grades in each room. The number of students who enrolled each year determined the grade combination you taught. I taught second and third grade some years and other years, third and fourth. The children were delightful, and I was blessed to teach at a time when, generally, the teacher was supported by the students’ parents.
After a few years I married John and we had our first child, Meghan. Teachers were paid so poorly then that putting Meghan in daycare had no financial benefit. So I retired and became a stay-at-home mom. The role as a stay-at-home mom was the best role I have ever had (until now, having the opportunity to be first lady of Dickinson).
Does that mean you're enjoying your role as first lady?
It’s been a refreshing and wonderful change in my life! I am a naturally friendly person, so I love talking about Dickinson and engaging with students, first and foremost. I also love engaging with the alums and meeting new and interesting people, including faculty members—I really enjoy many of the lectures and arts events I have an opportunity to attend. John loves the sporting events, and so I go to many of those, and while I’m not as much of a sports fan as John, I do truly enjoy getting into the spirit and cheering on the teams. We travel so much [because of the Dickinson Forward tour] that I regret that I miss some of the events, but I look forward to attending many more in the future.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I am an avid needle pointer and reader. I love to cook and entertain. I like fussing with pretty things. But my favorite pastime is being with my children and grandchildren.
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
If I could have dinner with one person, it would be Queen Elizabeth I. Talk about a woman who broke the glass ceiling. She truly was a force of nature.
Tell us a little about your family’s decision to accept the Dickinson presidency. Were you nervous, excited, unsure?
When John was approached about taking on the presidency I immediately said yes. So many of our friends are retiring, and I knew John was not ready for retirement [from his role as federal judge]. This seemed like a perfect fit for both of us. Our son John [’11] and daughter Meghan, who is an alum of Muhlenberg College, immediately were on board as well. They felt that John and I had the perfect skillset to do this job.
My greatest joy is being a grandmother. My grandchildren call me Babas. Something that has been difficult for me, in taking on this role and moving to Carlisle, was knowing that I would no longer see my grandchildren every day. Carys is 8 and Sophia is 6. We kept our home in Pottsville so that when the travel schedule and events allow, I can go home to see them. I’m hoping to be able to do that every two or three weeks. But on the upside, my son and his wife Katie, and our 20-month-old grandson, Jack (John Edward Jones V) recently moved from D.C. to Leesburg, Va. So they are closer to me now.
You and John have been very involved with Dickinson over the years, attending Alumni Weekends and Board of Trustee weekends, volunteering and giving back to the college financially. Why?
I have many thoughts as to why we choose to support Dickinson philanthropically. First are the benefits of Dickinson’s liberal-arts education; I envy the education John had, compared to mine. And most important, I see the impact that Dickinson has had on my son [John Jones IV ’11). His love of knowledge for all things continually delights me and awes me. He is such a confident man because of what he learned here. To say how proud I was of him at the inauguration, when he gave a speech—I have no words. My niece Lexi Tobash is a 2017 graduate. Dickinson also made her into such an accomplished and well-rounded person. Dickinson has been so good to all of them. That’s why our family gives back.
You just built a time machine. Where (and when) will you go?
A time machine would take me back, probably, to 18th century. I read a lot of historical fiction, and I would love to visit that period for just a bit—and, perhaps, visit Dickinson when it was first established! I wouldn’t want to be there for too long, because I do love modern conveniences. A camper I am not.
Do you have any role models or heroes?
Well, I have had several women in my life who’ve helped to shape and teach me. My mom Charlene, my Aunt JoAnn, my mother-in-law MaryAlyce, my husband’s Aunt Pat and my dearest friend Arlene. I would also include my daughter Meghan and my daughter-in-law Katie. They are two of the strongest women I know, and I constantly learn from them.
My father is a hero of mine. He grew up as a son of a coal miner, so he had a very poor background. He figured out at the young age of 17, with no guidance, to go into the navy and get an education. My father was very successful, but what was more important to him than anything was to live every day to the fullest. I do not know anyone who loved life more than my dad. Every day was a gift of joy for him even on the down turns. John and I miss him every day.
You’re working with the college to develop the Women for Dickinson project and First Lady Initiative, now in the planning phase, which aim to engage Dickinson women in philanthropic efforts. Why is this work important to you? How does your experience with Dickinson over the years inform your outreach work?
As far as the First Lady Initiative, I was so humbled that the school would want me to participate in this way. I understood the importance of raising money for a college before, but it’s gratifying to be able to be so personally involved in this outreach work. I believe it’s vitally important to express to folks the importance of financial support, no matter how big or small. Sharing time and talent with the school can be so important. So many accomplished women in the world have the ability to support the college. It is important to me to help promote their participation while also promoting a sense of community among Dickinson women.
It’s also vital to think about the important role that spouses play in family philanthropy. Spouses have a lot to say about how a couple’s money is used. When a couple gives back to the college, it is a joint pledge. Together, John and I made the decision to support Dickinson. If I can help in any way to promote philanthropy among Dickinson women—single women and partners—I will be grateful.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what things would you want to have with you?
My needlepoint and a good light.
Published March 13, 2023