When Jim W. Jones started the religion beat at the Star-Telegram in 1978, most newspapers printed “church news,” but few treated the topic as a newsworthy subject.
“The news business was really just beginning to understand what a force religion was not only in the U.S. but around the world,” former Star-Telegram metro editor Katie Sherrod said. “Jim got that a lot sooner than most of us.”
For more than 20 years, Mr. Jones covered televangelists, the upheaval among Southern Baptists and the schism of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. He wrote about Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, including several stories about the Dalai Lama.
He covered popes and the tragic mass shooting at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth.
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He also played a mean game of tennis.
Mr. Jones, 79, died early Sunday in Fort Worth of lung cancer, which was diagnosed only in March.
Mr. Jones was hired at the Star-Telegram on Feb. 4, 1957, and retired on Dec. 31, 2000. He continued free-lance writing during his retirement. In October he interviewed former President Jimmy Carter during his visit to Fort Worth on a Habitat for Humanity project. His last story in the Star-Telegram on March 3 dealt with a court ruling involving the Episcopalians.
“The Star-Telegram family was saddened to hear the news about Jim,” said Star-Telegram Executive Editor Jim Witt. “There was no finer person to have ever written a word here. He was as admired for his upbeat attitude as he was for his excellent reporting throughout the years. Readers will miss seeing his byline, and we’ll miss someone who was truly our friend.”
Toby Druin, the retired editor of The Baptist Standard, the Texas Baptist newspaper, said: “He and I covered the Southern Baptist Convention debacle together. I knew him as a guy of absolute integrity. He brought no spin. He was a great, solid reporter and a prince of a guy to be around.”
One of 11 children, he was born May 20, 1935, in the Lindale community in Montague County, outside Bowie. His birth certificate simply said “Baby Boy” Jones. But his parents named him Jimmy Wayne Jones.
Mr. Jones was a popular student who worked his way through high school, friends and siblings recalled. He was valedictorian of the class of 1953 at Bowie High School and he was the sixth man on the state championship basketball team.
His older sister, Patsy Wadsworth of Iowa Park, remembers her younger brother publishing his own newspaper in the basement of the family home and, when he reached high school, becoming editor of Maroon and White, the high school newspaper.
His younger brother, Eddie Jones, also of Iowa Park, remembers Mr. Jones running an extension cord to the basement, where he spent hours reading.
Eddie Jones doesn’t know what sparked his brother’s interest in journalism but recalls that their father, who had only a fifth-grade education, was an avid reader who subscribed to the Star-Telegram and loved to discuss politics.
He attended Arlington State College for one year (now the University of Texas at Arlington) before transferring to North Texas State College in Denton (now the University of North Texas) where he double-majored in English and journalism. He graduated with honors with a bachelor’s degree on Jan. 30, 1957. He later served on the board of directors for the UNT Alumni Association.
“Jimmy had a job ever since he was 14,” said Wayne Turner of Copperas Cove, one of his oldest friends. “He finished college in three years at North Texas State and had a job all through college.”
In 1967 Mr. Jones earned a master of arts degree in English from Texas Christian University. He would also go on a fellowship to Oxford University in England in 1999.
He was honored by the Providence, R.I.-based First Baptist in America in April 2002 for fostering religious freedom.
Created religion beat
A month after college graduation, Mr. Jones was hired as a full-time Star-Telegram reporter. Later, he became the first bureau chief of the Star-Telegram’s Mid-Cities Bureau in Arlington.
He covered the police beat and city council meetings, and throughout his career he could be called upon for any reporting assignment. In July 1982, he happened to be in New Orleans when a jetliner crashed, so he helped cover the story. He was sent to Houston in the late 1970s to help cover one of the Cullen Davis trials.
But in 1978, he began covering religion full time, and that’s what he will be remembered for.
At a time when most newspapers printed local church notes and pleasant church feature stories, Mr. Jones dug deeper.
He was watching closely in the late 1970s as the conservative wing of the Southern Baptist Convention began using secular political strategies to take control of the denomination. Being in Fort Worth, home to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and with Dallas and the large churches of the Mid-Cities nearby, Mr. Jones had a ringside seat to the years-long brawl and came to know most of the main players.
Much later, when the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth broke apart, he again was there to report.
Despite the hard feelings caused by the schism within the diocese, Mr. Jones was praised by both sides.
Suzanne Gill, spokeswoman for the group led by Bishop Jack Iker that left the national church, praised his sense of fairness.
“Jim was a Baptist who did his level best to understand Episcopalians ... the personalities, the ceremonies, the issues – the vocabulary,” Gill said. “I’m sure he preferred covering ‘good news’ stories, but when disagreements in our denomination led to local conflict and eventual litigation, Jim worked hard to sort it out for his readers.
“I came to appreciate him more and more as the years of hearings, rulings and appeals went on and on, and I am glad that Jim was the reporter of record when we received our favorable ruling from the 141st District Court six weeks ago.”
As an editor, Sherrod said, she trusted Mr. Jones to get it right.
In 1987, Mr. Jones covered Pope John Paul II’s outdoor Mass in San Antonio, which drew 300,000 people.
He wrote about the pope several times and Sherrod recalled his fascination not only with the crowds but the kitsch surrounding such events. One of his favorite items was a papal lawn sprinkler.
“He could cover everything from the solemn holy moments to the silly little things being marketed by people working the crowds,” Sherrod said.
For the most part, he could delve into the questions without offending those he interviewed.
“Matters of faith require a delicate touch,” Sherrod said. “Jim could walk that line better than most.”
Former Star-Telegram columnist O.K. Carter worked with Mr. Jones when he oversaw the Arlington bureau and saw him transition into a religion writer.
“It was as much of an intellectual interest as anything,” Carter said. “He has always been interested in what causes faith in people. He was also a groupie on religious history and how groups promote themselves.”
Carter and Mr. Jones shared a passion outside of work: They were both avid tennis players who spent thousands of hours playing against each other and as doubles partners.
Mr. Jones was a self-taught tennis player whose technique was unconventional, Carter said.
“By the time his opponents had figured him out, they had lost the match,” Carter said. “It was just a really unique, off-the-books kind of game.”
The Baptist beat
Mr. Jones spent much of his career chronicling the transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Russell Dilday is a moderate Baptist who was ousted as president of Southwestern Seminary. Dilday said he always had a good working relationship with Mr. Jones.
“I think Jim always tried to keep his partiality out of his reporting,” Dilday said. “He had convictions. He had his own ideas, but he wanted to report fairly.”
But Mr. Jones also wanted to get the story.
During the effort to oust Dilday, Mr. Jones was kicked out of a trustees’ meeting where they were deliberating Dilday’s future, Druin of the The Baptist Standard said.
“They went into executive session to go over everything,” Druin said. “Jim and I found a little alcove on the back side of the meeting room that had a speaker in it. We listened to everything they were doing. Then, the door flew open, and it was one of them running us away as they turned that speaker off.”
On Sept. 15, 1999, a gunman walked into a youth gathering at Wedgwood Baptist Church, and started shooting, killing seven people and wounding seven before killing himself.
Mr. Jones was the first person to inform the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Al Meredith, that the shooting had occurred.
Initially, Meredith, who was at home, thought Mr. Jones had to be wrong, But his phone rang again moments later with a call from a church official telling him about the shooting.
In the weeks afterward, Mr. Jones was a constant presence around the church as it grieved for the people killed. But Meredith said he was never intrusive.
“My opinion was Jim was about as fair as you could be,” Meredith said. “Jim always tried to present both sides.”
As televangelists gained popularity, Mr. Jones treated them with the same respect as ministers in mainline churches.
“Covering religious news is always a difficult assignment, and he rose to the occasion in the face of many controversies,” said James Robison, founder and president of LIFE Outreach International and LIFE Today.
“It seemed he wanted, if possible, to be a peacemaker,” Robison said. “When Jim talked to me, my family or staff, he represented them as accurately as possible. To me he was a great reporter, but above that, a great person of character.”
Survivors include his wife Carol Savage Jones, brother and sister.
Mr. Jones has donated his body for medical research to University of Texas-Southwestern Medical School. A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. on May 20 — on what would have been his 80th birthday — at First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth.
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698
A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. on May 20 at First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth.