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Former county manager Harry Jones dies after cancer battle that inspired many

Jones served as county manager – the first black person to hold the job in Mecklenburg – from 2000 to 2013.

Harry Jones

Harry Jones in his home (Photo by Glenn Burkins)

Harry Jones, who rose from North Carolina’s Sandhills to lead Mecklenburg County as county manager for 12 years, died Wednesday.

Jones died of pancreatic cancer, a disease that kills 92 percent of its victims within five years of diagnosis. The strong-willed Jones became one of the exceptions, surviving that threshold as he counseled fellow patients and declared his illness a gift that “cured my soul.” He had been diagnosed with cancer in December 2011.

Jones served as county manager – the first black person to hold the job in Mecklenburg – from 2000 to 2013.

Last November, in his first appearance before Mecklenburg County commissioners since the board fired him, Jones promoted awareness of the disease. The following month, commissioners inducted him into the Order of the Hornet, the county’s highest award.

Former county officials and staff members lined up that night to pay tribute to Jones, who leaned on a walker.

Commissioners praised Jones for hiring a professional staff, including current manager Dena Diorio, and for creating a scorecard to measure the county’s performance. They said his “debt diet” navigated the recession of the late 2000s and recalled his role in resettling victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They thanked him for counsel that helped them succeed.

“You are the person who is responsible for me sitting at this desk,” said board Chair Ella Scarborough.

Old colleagues said Jones instilled in his staff a mission of public service – and signaled they had talked too long by pulling out his hearing aids. He rarely missed a day of work even after his cancer diagnosis.

Sandra Bisanar, who retired as deputy county attorney in 2008, called Jones inspiring.

“He is a genuinely caring person who quickly connects with people, and as such has made and maintained legions of enduring friendships throughout all facets of his life, both personal and professional,” Bisanar said by email. “He regularly calls all of his multitude of friends to check in with them to provide hope, encouragement, love and a few laughs. He is always there for his friends to weep when they weep and to rejoice when they rejoice.

“Having a friend like Harry is a gift that is greatly cherished, and losing it is a loss that is profound.”

Jones joked in December that when he started the county job, he stood 6 feet 5 and wore an Afro. “I’m frailer than when I left three years ago,” he told commissioners, “but guess what, ladies and gentlemen: I’m stronger than I’ve ever been.”

The son of an Army officer, Jones moved with his family between bases from Fort Bragg to Taiwan before settling in Southern Pines when he was a teenager. The oldest of three children always seemed to have a job, including caddying and parking cars at swanky golf resorts.

Jones first attended Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst and was elected Student Government Association president. At UNC Chapel Hill, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, his honors included being inducted into the Order of the Golden Fleece, the university’s highest honorary society.

He worked in Dallas, Fayetteville and for the city of Charlotte before serving nine years as an assistant Mecklenburg county manager.

Tears welled in Jones’ eyes after calling his mother when commissioners hired him as county manager in 2000, replacing 20-year veteran Jerry Fox. “She is the proudest person in the world right now,” he said. “My goal is not to ever let her down.”

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who served as a county commissioner from 2004 to 2012, said Jones “was a person of conviction who felt like it was his duty to serve. He knew he was breaking some barriers and wanted to work very hard and live up to those expectations.”

That sense of duty also propelled him to publicly talk about his illness in an effort to raise public awareness of pancreatic cancer, she said. Commissioner Neil Cooksey died of the same disease in 2012.

Roberts credited Jones with involving the community as the county struggled through the late-2000s recession, forming task forces to gain public input on operating cuts for libraries and parks.

“He worked well with the community to try to alleviate the pain we knew budget cuts would cause,” she said, while also avoiding property tax hikes.

Charlotte chamber president Bob Morgan, who shared with him a love of UNC and golf, said Jones also helped him understand racial issues in their frequent telephone conversations.

“Harry is 15 years older than I, and he has been like a big brother in many ways, especially in helping me to better understand issues relating to race and race relations, which we discuss often,” Morgan wrote for a celebration of Jones’ life on Jan. 7. “His experiences and thoughtfulness on the subject have had a profoundly educational impact on me.”

In recent years, Jones served on the board of the Sisters of Mercy of North Carolina Foundation, was elected a fellow to the National Academy of Public Administration and to the UNC Board of Visitors and served as president of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators. UNC’s Distinguished Alumna/Alumnus award in 2010 was among a long list of honors.

As county manager, Jones oversaw 4,400 employees and a $1.3 billion budget. Under his watch, the county went on a building boom, erecting new jails and a $148 million courthouse and expanding greenways, all while protecting its bond rating.

But commissioners voted in 2013 to fire him amid growing tensions with newly-elected board members, including disagreements over communications and Jones’ leadership style. Public outcry over a 2011 property revaluation and Jones’ handling of problems at the county social services agency preceded his firing. Jones, still fighting his cancer then, insisted he was not bitter.

After his diagnosis just before Christmas 2011, Jones, who had not been a regular church goer, sensed an epiphany. He joined Little Rock AME Zion Church, read the Bible daily and posted prayers at home and work. “I felt that my soul has been restored,” he said in a 2012 Observer interview.

That sense of revival became a book in 2015: “How Cancer Cured My Soul.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhenderson@charlotteobserver.com

 

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