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Most people just call her Miss Della, but after last week she can be called Dr. Jones.
Della Jones, Grant County’s oldest resident at 105 years young (soon to be 106 in July) was given an honorary doctorate degree from Kentucky State University.
“Do you want to wear a robe?” she was asked of the traditional graduation attire.
“Well, of course,” she was quick to reply.
While she wasn’t able to don the robes associated with graduation, they were draped around her shoulders and she was all smiles when a brightly colored stole was slipped gently over her head.
Jones is KSU’s oldest living alumna. She was invited to commencement exercises on May 9 but was too ill to attend, so KSU decided to bring the ceremony to her.
“Della Jones has a dream and dedicated her life to it,” said KSU President Mary Evans Sias.
Before a crowd of 50 plus, Sias and John Martin, the university’s registrar, gave Jones a doctor of humane honorary letters degree May 14 at Grant Manor Nursing Home in Williamstown.
Jones, who until a few weeks ago lived in the same white frame house on Cynthiana Street that she had since she was 18 years old, has since moved to Grant Manor. Until that time, members of Williamstown United Methodist Church and neighbors looked after her and brought her meals several times a week.
Jones just didn’t teach history to hundreds of school children, she’s lived this country’s history.
Jones came of age during the Great Depression and watched the country struggle with segregation followed by integration.
She left her family and attended a black teacher’s college in Shelby County. Her first teaching job took her to Wayne County. She spent just a year there before accepting a position in the Boone County School System where she taught for four years.
Her marriage to Bradley Jones put an end her dreams of being a teacher. In those days, married women were not allowed to teach, but Jones knew that someday she’d return to the classroom.
The couple adopted a child and she spent the next 13 years at home, but when the Legislature changed the laws and allowed married women to teach, she didn’t hesitate.
She returned to teaching at a one room school for black children in New Liberty. She boarded with an Owen County family and returned home on weekends.
She continued teaching at segregated schools for black children and following integration, she became the librarian at Owen County High School.
Because education was important to her, she returned to college at Kentucky State and earned her bachelor’s degree in 1957. Dr. Martin Luther King was the commencement speaker.
That speech, along with seeing Barack Obama sworn in as the United States’ first African American president, have been highlights of her life.
But May 14, the crowd, including former students and co-workers of Jones’ from her teaching days, were in Williamstown to pay tribute to a woman described as a “life long learner, as well as an inspiration to students and the public.”
“She was inspiration to everyone who meets her, always had a smile and always had something educational to say,” said Berta Gayle, who taught with Jones at New Liberty in the 1940s.
“She was wonderful,” said Verna Payne, a retired teacher at OCHS, who knew Jones from her days as librarian. “She is my friend.”
Larry Perry, of Owenton, served as Jones’ library assistant at OCHS.
“She’s just a wonderful woman. There’s no one any nicer or more deserving,” he said.
Jones, a soft-spoken woman, was a little dazed by the awards ceremony and the crowd of well wishers.
“I’m astonished right now that all of you have come to this occasion,” she said humbly. “I’m happy to have lived long enough to celebrate this. I’ve always loved Ky. State and been very proud.”
Because of her many years of service to Owen County’s children, Owenton Mayor David “Milkweed” Wotier proclaimed May 14 as Della Jones Day,
“She’s just a rock,” said Michael Meeks, Jones’ great nephew. “She’s a constant in our family and we’re thankful she has a mind to recognize all of us. She’s our link and we thank God for you, so I guess I’ll be the first to say, Dr. Jones.”