Civic leader Charles Jones dies after extended illness

Charles H. Jones, a Thomaston native who built a business empire across Middle Georgia and gave back by boosting local colleges and community development, died late Friday. He was 82.

Jones’ son Dwight Jones said his father died shortly after 11 p.m. in his Wesleyan Drive home surrounded by loved ones. He had been in declining health in recent years.

“He had complications from several illnesses,” Dwight Jones said.

Charles Jones, known as Charlie to friends, was founder and chairman of Ocmulgee Fields Inc. In the 1970s, he was president of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority. In 1996, he helped create NewTown Macon and, from 1994 to 2001, he served on the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.

Jones moved to Macon in his 20s and started his first business in 1951. Over time, his holdings included motels, shopping centers, a construction company and a wholesale food supplier.

In a 1985 interview, he said he wasn’t too keen on working for someone else when he graduated from the University of Georgia in 1950 with a degree in business administration.

“I wanted to go to work when I wanted and get off when I wanted and take actions and do things that I thought ought to be done without being under the direction of somebody else,” he said.

When Jones was young, he opened a small sundries store at the corner of Poplar and Broadway. He once told a reporter that at night, after closing the store, he would go to the Dempsey Hotel downtown and count the number of lighted rooms. Then he would go to the motels outside the city limits and count the cars in the parking lots.

Often finding that they were all full, he decided to go into the motel business, following in his parents’ footsteps. By 1956, he had built the Ambassador Motel on Riverside Drive. He sold his home to finance the motel, and for the first year he and his family lived on the Ambassador’s second floor.

Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., at one time Macon’s largest manufacturing employer, located in Bibb County while Jones was president of the chamber of commerce. He was instrumental in establishing The Mercer University School of Medicine and served on the board of trustees of the Macon State College Foundation. The five-year-old science building on the Macon State campus is named for him.

Jones made forays into the political arena, but he failed in two bids for the state Senate, in 1970 and in 1982.

Standing about 5 feet 5 inches tall, Jones was not an imposing physical presence. But his energy, intelligence and persuasive smile made him a force to be reckoned with.

Former Macon Mayor Buck Melton said he had been a close friend of Jones’ since the 1960s, when Jones first sought his services as a lawyer.

“He was a bright guy with a very aggressive attitude,” Melton said. “He got things done. ... He was not one to sit around and wait for something to happen. He wanted to make it happen.”

Melton recalled a lunch meeting he and Jones once had with a man who was looking for backers for a community project.

“It was a worthwhile project, and after lunch Charlie just said, ‘Let’s get it done. I’ll write you a check.’ And bang, he did it right there.”

Jones’ many honors include being named 1972 Man of the Year in Race Relations by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and being named an honorary chief of the Creek Indian Nation. In his later years, he became an avid traveler. He and his wife, Ves, visited Norway, Peru and China.

Macon banker Bob Hatcher called Jones “a real doer.”

“Charlie once opened three shopping centers in Macon in one week, one at Wesleyan, one at Baconsfield and one on Pio Nono,” Hatcher said. “He created 1,000 jobs all by himself. He was amazing to watch.”

“When you met him you immediately focused on him and listened to him, and he usually had something good to say.”

Hatcher currently serves as chair of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. He said Jones brought his characteristic zeal to the Board of Regents during his stint, becoming the first member to visit all 35 schools.

In a written statement, Macon State College President David Bell said, “For years there was no greater or louder advocate for Macon State becoming a bachelor’s degree institution than Charlie Jones. When that dream was realized in 1997, he continued to support the college in numerous and thoughtful ways.

“My last visit with him was just a couple of weeks ago, when I took him a newly framed night photograph we had taken showing the Jones Building sitting next to the new Professional Sciences and Conference Center. He took a long look at the photo, put on the Macon State cap I’d brought him and flashed that big, wide smile of his, showing just how proud he was of the building that bears his name.”

Funeral services for Jones will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday at First Presbyterian Church, 682 Mulberry St.