Robert Wesley Jones, who was forever anchored to Martha’s Vineyard even as he fully embraced a multifaceted life as a Marine, businessman, educational advisor, superb skier, and recreational boat captain, died on Tuesday, July 21, in the arms of his wife, Elaine Savory Jones, at Mount Sinai/Beth Israel Hospital in New York City, three days short of his 86th birthday.
Robert, who at different times in his life was known as Bobby, Bob Jones, or B.J., was born July 24, 1929, in Boston. Within days of his birth he was on Martha’s Vineyard at the home of his grandparents, Carolyn Dorinda Jones and Thomas Vreeland Jones, on Pacific Avenue in Oak Bluffs. It was a connection that would endure throughout his life.
Carolyn Jones was an extraordinary woman in her own right, but not least because she took on the care of Robert and his sister Jackie after their mother died very young when Jackie was 8 and Robert was 4.
Robert was happy to be Bobby as a child, and Bob into early middle age, but then from some 40 years ago wanted to be addressed as Robert, though it was also fine for anyone who knew him at the time he was Bobby or Bob to go on calling him the version of his name they knew long ago.
Somehow this mostly worked. He knew exactly what he was doing — naming different phases of his long and rich life by different versions of his name.
The Vineyard was a healing place, where Robert and Jackie could just be kids and have wonderful summers. His aunt, the celebrated artist Loïs Mailou Jones, was an important presence on the Vineyard, where she liked to rent a small cabin in Menemsha and paint all summer.
There are many wonderful stories about those days, from childhood to young adulthood. Eventually, the idyll of Vineyard summers was brutally interrupted by war. Robert was conscripted into the Korean conflict, and served for 15 months on the frontline in Marine intelligence. He was wounded in action.
After his honorary discharge, he returned to the East Coast, completed an undergraduate degree at New York University, and then went on to law school. His career took him into city government and then real estate appraisal and counseling. He founded a successful firm, Robert W. Jones and Associates, focused on real estate in New York City.
He served on many boards over the years, perhaps most notably with Tougaloo College in Mississippi as a trustee for a quarter of a century. He became the first African American chairman of Tougaloo’s board, eventually retiring as chairman emeritus. Throughout his most active and productive working years, he always connected with the Vineyard.
Pacific Avenue was the site of memorable parties to celebrate the adjacent July birthdays of Robert and his brother-in-law, Albert (Al) Holland. His two children from his first marriage to Marlene Walden (1956 to 1968), Todd and Stacy, very much enjoyed the Island, along with their cousins Laurence and Carol, his sister Jackie’s children.
Later, for quite some years, Robert preferred boating to a landlocked summer, though he always put into port in Oak Bluffs for a time and joined the extended family.
A second marriage to Gudrin Heider (early 1970s to mid-’80s) also ended in divorce. At Christmas 1986, on a trip to Barbados, he met Elaine Savory Jones, a professor at the University of the West Indies. They were married on Dec. 29, 1991. Their family now included three children, Todd, Stacy and Austin, and Robert and Elaine have felt very blessed by their closeness as siblings.
In 1993, he sold his last, beloved boat, Companion, and he and Elaine embarked on the major project to restore the old homestead on Pacific Avenue, which was in a state of disrepair.
In 1998, Robert and Elaine moved to Olde Schoolhouse Village, to a larger, younger house with a far more convenient layout for a man already on the brink of his 70s.
He became a committed member of the Union Chapel community, where he and his wife enjoyed renewing connections from all over the U.S. His middle name Wesley (the same as his father’s) reflected Carolyn Jones’ strong Methodism. She helped raise funds for the cross above the Tabernacle. Robert was gently spiritual, rather than strictly religious, and loved the variety as much as the excellence of Union Chapel’s preachers.
He enjoyed all the rituals of summer: the first lobster on the still-chilly June Menemsha Beach; clams at Larsen’s, where Robert and his father would routinely and with enormous pleasure down a dozen each; birthdays at the house or at favorite restaurants; the trip to the post office for mail and greeting people in the square outside.
He also greatly enjoyed driving his beloved vintage 1968 Cadillac, “Betsy,” which always attracted waves and admiring comments as he drove around the Island. It was a fine treat to be taken up-Island in Betsy, and visitors loved it.
Last summer, he had to cope with restricted mobility, but he and Elaine still stayed in the Vineyard from late June until late August. He fought his last illness with constant resilience, determination, and grace, in sum great courage, until his long ordeal ended in peace.
He was cremated on July 24 after a ceremony created and carried out by family members in accordance with his wishes. It included some of his favorite music, both sacred and secular, a psalm, and a passage from Maria Rainer Rilke (his mantra in adult life) read by his two oldest grandchildren, Taylor and Tristan. Robert’s nephew, Michael Adeyemi Lythcott delivered powerful prayers and thoughts in English, Yoruba, and Latin. Finally, a Marine honor guard provided “Taps” and the folding and presentation of the American flag to mark Robert’s service.
The family expects to celebrate his life in various venues during the next year, bringing together family and friends in the U.S., U.K., the Caribbean, France, Germany, and Canada. His spirit will always be with us, wherever we are, but Martha’s Vineyard is full of very special memories.
Donations may be made in his memory to MJHS Foundation, 6323 7th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11220.