Founding chair of ECU's Department of Family Medicine lauded for lifetime commitment

A plaque on the newly named James G. “Jim” Jones Chair’s Suite in East Carolina University’s Department of Family Medicine honors Jones and an immense list of titles for which he is known.

Advocate. Champion. Family physician. Visionary. Mentor. Counselor. Friend.

Words praising Jones, founding chair of ECU’s Department of Family Medicine at the Brody School of Medicine, and his life’s work came easily and emphatically as his impact on ECU and health care in North Carolina was celebrated Jan. 27 at a luncheon with state leaders in health care and higher education.

East Carolina University Chancellor Philip Rogers and UNC-Pembroke Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings pose with proclamations honoring Jim Jones, ECU Department of Family Medicine founding chair.

East Carolina University Chancellor Philip Rogers and UNC-Pembroke Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings pose with proclamations honoring Jim Jones, ECU Department of Family Medicine founding chair. (ECU photo by George Crocker)


Proclamations from East Carolina University, the Town of Pembroke, the Robeson County Board of Commissioners and the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina paid homage to the exceptional accomplishments of Jones, founding chair of ECU’s Department of Family Medicine.

On behalf of the Lumbee Tribe, UNC-Pembroke Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings presented Jones with the proclamation. Included in the honor was an eagle feather, which the Native American tribe has permission to bestow.

“In American Indian culture, since the eagle flies so high, it is believed to be the closest creature to the creator,” Cummings said. “The eagle is strength, wisdom and courage. When given an eagle feather, that person is being acknowledged as the best.”

Cummings recognized that most North Carolina leaders of Jones’ standing also would receive The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s highest civilian honor, but they did not bestow it on him as he had previously received the award.

Thousands of North Carolinians have benefitted from Jones’ influence on family medicine. Many were cared for directly by Jones as a practicing physician, more were treated by physicians trained by Jones during his 20 years leading ECU’s Department of Family Medicine. Generations more will be cared for by family physicians because of the foundation he built. Cummings said Jones has lived the biblical phrase, “to whom much is given, much is required.”

“I believe Jim Jones has lived under the shadow of this admonition his entire life,” Cummings said. “Could any other statement better summarize Jim’s life, and the person he is, and his accomplishments?”

— Patricia Earnhardt Tyndall

Jones said he wished there was language beyond the word love to describe his feelings for his colleagues and friends who had gathered in his honor. Though guests leaned in to hear every word from Jones, it was a day for others to laud him with their admiration, appreciation and accolades. Those honors were bestowed in an auditorium used daily to educate future physicians.

In recognition of Jones’ distinguished career, friends and colleagues raised more than $333,000 to establish the Dr. James G. Jones Distinguished Professorship in Family Medicine in the ECU Brody School of Medicine. ECU will apply for a $167,000 match from the state of North Carolina to endow the professorship ensuring that Jones’ legacy lives on for generations.

ECU Chancellor Philip Rogers shared the university’s mission and core commitments of student success, public service and regional transformation.

“Those words have meaning. They are rooted in our DNA,” Rogers said. “I’m not sure we could have a better embodiment of ECU’s mission in action than Dr. Jones.”

During Rogers’ tenure as legislative liaison and chief of staff at ECU, he experienced Jones’ impact firsthand when the need for a family medicine center was brought to the chancellor’s office.

“There were some wise people who said, ‘We can get this done because we know the man who can help make this happen and that’s Jim Jones.’ And folks, he did,” Rogers said. “We’re sitting in this room today as a result of his vision and his leadership in developing this $36.8 million state-of-the-art family medicine center.”

ECU is able to deliver on its mission because of advances that stand on the shoulders of people like Jones, who set the foundation for where we are today, Rogers said.

“I say, yet again, how grateful we are and how proud we are to call you a friend,” Rogers said.

Chelley Alexander, chair of the Department of Family Medicine, welcomed Jones and his guests to the home of family medicine.

“This beautiful facility was envisioned and championed by Dr. Jim Jones,” she said. “It is incredible to have the opportunity to work here every day, and it is a distinct honor to serve in the same role as Dr. Jones.”

Alexander said the Department of Family Medicine became an invaluable asset to ECU and eastern North Carolina only because of Jones’ incredible work establishing the department. She noted his determination in making it one of the best family medicine programs in the country and doing all the behind-the-scenes work to create a state-of-the-art family medicine center.

“I’m happy to report that ECU Family Medicine is thriving,” Alexander said. “We have trained over 400 family medicine residents since the start of the program that Dr. Jones envisioned. It is by standing on the shoulders of the giants in the discipline that we are successful and Dr. Jones thanks to your vision and advocacy we have built on your work.”

Alexander shared that ECU consistently has the highest percentage of graduates in North Carolina choosing to go into family medicine and has been in the top 10 schools in the nation for the percentage of students who enter family medicine programs.

Determined advocacy

Jones’ work to establish a medical school for training more family medicine doctors began 50 years ago when he was president of the North Carolina Academy of Family Physicians and a practicing physician in Jacksonville. UNC System president Bill Friday asked him to establish a family medicine clinic at ECU.

UNC-Pembroke Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings, a friend, colleague and co-chair of the Jones endowment planning committee, described Jones as proof that circumstances do not determine where you go in life; they only tell where you start.

Jones was 5 years old when his parents left him to be raised by his grandparents in rural Robeson County. Cummings described a quote Jones’ grandmother often recited, “Do a job, big or small, do it well, or not at all.”

A member of the Lumbee Tribe, Jones went on to be a distinguished alumnus of Wake Forest University, the first American Indian to graduate from Bowman Gray School of Medicine, as well as the first to become chairman of a clinical department in a medical school in the United States. Upon completing his internship at Grady Hospital in Atlanta and residency with the U.S. Navy at Camp Lejeune, Jones established a thriving medical practice in Jacksonville.

Cummings said Jones dreamed of following Albert Schweitzer and becoming a medical missionary in Africa. Instead, when it wasn’t popular to do, “he became our nation’s biggest advocate in family medicine,” Cummings said. “He, and a very select group, forced the N.C. General Assembly to look at health care in rural North Carolina.”

Cummings read messages from letters sent from Gov. Roy Cooper and former governor Jim Hunt recognizing Jones as a giant in medicine.

“I sincerely appreciate your dedication to bringing medical care to the poor and to rural North Carolina,” Cooper’s letter said.

Hunt wrote of his high regard for Jones: “Jim is one of the top visionary leaders in our state’s history and one of the giants in helping make North Carolina the state it is today. A man of great humility, Jim is a true North Carolina treasure.”

Howard Stein, from Jacksonville, first encountered Jones in 1963 as a 10-year-old patient in Jones’ new medical practice. With great affection, Stein described a friendship that has become a 60-year love affair between Jones and his family.

“I remember my father saying that he cannot imagine somebody meeting Dr. Jones and not liking him,” Stein said. “He’s a guy that has an amazing personality. He is everything that you want a man to be from start to finish.”

“I’ve been a lucky guy in every way,” Stein added. “He has been my doctor, a mentor, grief counselor and spiritual advisor to me when I needed one. Most of all he has been my friend.”

Mission fulfilled

Jones looked out at the room of friends and began to recognize their work in family medicine, which he credited with his success and reason for the honors bestowed in his name.

“I am amazed by what a wonderful thing that has happened here,” Jones said. “I am humbled and I am very deeply, deeply appreciative.”

Jones was instrumental in advocating for ECU's family medicine program and facilities.

Jones was instrumental in advocating for ECU’s family medicine program and facilities. (ECU photo by Rhett Butler)

The practitioner turned teacher again as Jones provided a master class describing how a poor Lumbee boy from Robeson County became a physician, found his mission and transformed family medicine in North Carolina.

Jones said for a long time, the extreme eastern and western parts of our state were hinterlands that academia ignored. He was persuaded to believe existing medical schools would not train family physicians as East Carolina was proposing to do.

When Jones was first called to meet with President Friday, it was an effort to have Jones back off of his idea of training family physicians. Jones was inclined to do the opposite. He led the N.C. Academy of Family Physicians to unanimously support ECU’s effort to open a medical school and to educate state leaders on the need for local physicians.

“I knew if we didn’t train doctors there would be no one to care for patients in rural areas,” Jones said. “It turns out that most of the sitting legislators had a family doctor. I want you all to take a little booth right outside their offices and let them know who you are.”

Jones loved being a practicing physician and when he was asked to come to ECU to lead family medicine, he turned his efforts toward finding someone else to fill the role.

“I didn’t really want to come to be quite honest with you,” Jones said. “I agreed to come for two years. I stayed 20.”

Jones said he thought of himself initially as destined to be a missionary. He believes his time as the founding chair of family medicine at ECU was God’s way of using his service.

“I found my destiny and I believe my place of service was not in Africa,” Jones said. “My mission field has been to create doctors for rural North Carolina.”

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