Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ulysses Jones Jr. carved himself a legacy

   Not many people would remember the name Harper Brewer, the state legislator who Ulysses Jones Jr., then a newcomer to the political arena, defeated in the 1986 Democratic primary and then another opponent in the general election to represent North Memphis and Raleigh in the Tennessee General Assembly. 
   Erma Lee Laws, former columnist and society editor for the Tri-State Defender, had to reach deep into her memory bank to recall that defining moment in history when the young political upstart toppled the veteran legislator who'd made an indelible mark in Nashville before his death in 1990.
   Key moments in history seldom slip past Laws, who is 80. But the 13 consecutive elections that Jones won since defeating the seven-term incumbent, including his last one on Nov. 2, forced Laws to push Brewer's legacy back into the recesses of her mind because of the legacy that Jones had carved for himself in House District 98.
   "Was it Harper Brewer that Ulysses Jones defeated to win that seat?" Laws asked Wednesday, a day after she'd learned that Jones had died unexpectedly Monday from complications of pneumonia at Methodist Le Bonheur Germantown Hospital.  
   He was 59. 
   For 37 of those years, Jones worked his way up to the position of battalion chief with the Memphis Fire Department. He was one of the paramedics dispatched to Graceland in 1977, where Elvis Presley was found unresponsive. Resuscitation efforts were futile, and Presley was taken to the former Baptist Memorial Hospital on Union Avenue, where he was pronounced dead.  
    Jones had served on a number of committees, including, among them, serving as chairman of the State and Local Government Committee, chairman of the House Ethnics Committee, and the Governor's Minority Business Development Advisory Committee.
   A number of Jones' friends and colleagues admired his handy work and touted his skills in the Legislature. He fought for causes dear to his heart, said state Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, Dist. 88, such as protection for state employees, and the Tennessee Education Lottery, with help from then-state senator Steve Cohen, the current ninth-district congressman
   Miller had known Jones for 25 years and used to talk to him several times a week. He'd seen his colleague a week before his death and expected a call from him that weekend. That call never came. Instead, he got one Tuesday morning from Shep Wilbun, former Shelby County commissioner, city councilman and Juvenile Court clerk, who informed him that Jones had died.
   "I was stunned and shocked."
   Miller said Jones had encouraged him to run for the seat nine elections ago. The seat had been in Republican hands and redistricted in 1992 to favor a Democrat. "He approached me about running. I agreed. Then he became a co-campaign manager with Shep Wilbun, Joe Towns Jr. and Rickey Peete."
  Jones was a gentle giant and an effective legislator who led with authority, he added. "His thumbprint is on a lot of legislation."
   "One of my greatest memories was Ulysses' ability to maneuver and compromise," said state Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, Dist. 85, who sat behind Jones in the House of Representatives and observed the veteran legislator at work. 
   Turner said it was Jones who persuaded her to run for the seat that her husband, Larry Turner, had occupied before his death last year in November. "He said, 'I think you should run for Larry's position. You could promote his legacy.'"
   Although Turner has served only six months as a legislator, she said her political career has been enriched by Jones' "skills and ability to get things done, his ability to maneuver and compromise, and the respect that he earned from his colleagues."
   When bills were debated on the House floor that appeared to be thinly veiled tax increases, Jones took it upon himself to see the bills' defeat, Turner remembers. "He would rub the Republicans the wrong way on taxes, if they would present such a bill. He was just that way."
   As a freshman legislator, Jones was mentored by veteran lawmaker Lois DeBerry, who guided him through a House-full of scrapping legislators who battled across the aisle that separated Democrats from Republicans. Newcomers, she said, would avoid this form of scrapping and remain upstairs. 
   "They were very reluctant to come downstairs. I told him that if he didn't come downstairs that I was going to tell his constituents. Now look what he has accomplished."
   Jones learned the art of compromise and at times remained steadfast when championing those bills that affected his constituents one way or the other. "He was looking forward to returning to the General Assembly to fight for lottery scholarships," said DeBerry, adding that Jones' death "puts everything, his life and policies, into perspective." 
   His death, she said, conjures up memories of two other legislators who died within a three-year span: state representatives Turner, who died last year, and Gary Rowe, who died in 2008.
   "In the House of Representatives, Gary Rowe sat behind Larry Turner and Ulysses Jones sat in front of Larry Turner. That whole row has been wiped out."
   After Jones' seat is declared vacant, the County Commission will start the process of appointing someone to fill the seat until the governor calls for a special election, said DeBerry, adding, "The people should not be without representation." 
   Jones' wake and visitation will be held Sunday (Nov. 14), from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., at Middle Baptist Church, 4982 Knight Arnold Rd. A second visitation will be held Monday (Nov. 15), from 10 a.m. to 12 noon, at Hope Presbyterian Church, 8500 Walnut Grove Rd. 
   The funeral will follow.


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