By Kamille D. Whittaker
Morris Jones chuckles modestly at the notion of his wife, Dr. Brenda Watts Jones, being “nervous” about assuming the helm of Atlanta Technical College — the oft-overlooked higher learning alternative that, 12 years ago, was marked with a poor public school image, low enrollment, and gaping morale amongst the faculty, staff and students alike. It wasn’t that the thought of her being nervous was far-fetched or beyond the scope of her normal disposition, rather, for Dr. Jones, there was little room for trepidation in the grand scheme of things. A firm believer in chance favoring the prepared, she meticulously accounted for every detail and conceived every possible scenario. So, if Dr. Jones was apprehensive about what was arguably the greatest feat by an African-American woman in Atlanta collegiate history — you wouldn’t have been able to tell.
“Granted, there were a few sleepless nights, leading up to her first day as interim president and then president,” remembers Jones, a firefighter for the City of Atlanta who retired after almost 36 years of service to be by his wife’s side as she battled and then succumbed to inflammatory breast cancer, at age 55, in August of 2007. “But Brenda always had a strong conviction to serve God through education. She knew that she had been continuously blessed in her life and was committed to blessing others by simply being organized and ready for the challenges that she was presented.”
And Atlanta Tech was indeed a challenge. Dr. Jones would have to navigate the transition from local school board authority to state control; solve the problems that came with a poor public image and low enrollment; and cultivate widespread support for her vision.
As the first and only African-American woman to head a technical institution in the state of Georgia, Dr. Jones managed a $24.5 million budget and oversaw $13 million in facilities improvements, propelling the former technical vocational school into a full-fledged technical college that offered two-year associate degrees. Under her watch, Atlanta Tech expanded funding for scholarships and interest-free loans for students, and helped provide additional educational avenues for students who otherwise would not have had an opportunity to attend college.
Dr. Jones understood that targeted marketing and public relations, and strategic partnerships would be critical to her success. Soon after assuming the helm, she led the effort to establish and develop high-profile corporate partnerships with the likes of BMW of North America, Delta Air Lines and the Ford Motor Company.
In the last four years, the college has captured 104 national and regional marketing awards, and has been profiled in three national publications. Last year, an Associated Press story about an Atlanta Tech alumnus appeared in nearly 200 papers nationally and internationally.
To promote technical education globally, Dr. Jones established the first and only ongoing international exchange program through a Georgia technical college with Germany. In 2006, she signed agreements for other exchange programs with a Korean university and with the government of Bermuda. At the time of her death, the college’s educational offerings were expanded by 30 percent.
“One of the things I observed before I came on board in my capacity was how her legacy was still so very prevalent,” recalls Dr. Josephine Reed-Taylor, interim president for Atlanta Tech. “Dr. Jones had a strong commitment to providing quality education in the community and was very focused on making dreams come true. She made sure her standard of excellence permeated to all parts of the faculty and staff, and recruited qualified faculty and staff to support the students — many [of whom] were getting a second chance at an education.”
Taylor cites the fact that since Dr. Jones’ arrived at Atlanta Tech, the college became a vibrant, thriving institution. Enrollment tripled in her last five years, going from 1,400 to 4,200 full-time equivalent students.
“There were times when Brenda would say, ‘I have the best executives, best faculty and staff and best students,'” says Jones. Her reward for her keen recruitment efforts and staff management would come posthumously, when Washington Monthly ranked Atlanta Technical College as the “Best Community College in America.”
“You get that feeling from the people here that Dr. Jones’ presence is still alive and well, and that’s the feeling that produced such an electric environment and what also propelled us to being America’s best community college,” Dr. Taylor continues. “A leader sells a vision and sets things in motion, but there’s a whole group functioning behind that. It was a significant interruption in having their leader pass away.”
A Daphne, Ala., native, Dr. Jones earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology from Dillard University before completing graduate work at Atlanta University and Georgia State University. She was tapped to lead then-Atlanta Technical Institute in 1997, after having been a prominent figure in Georgia’s education sector.
Jones still smiles when he speaks of her.
“I remember early in our courtship she called me while I was in the kitchen banging pots together. She asked me ‘what are you doing?’ and I said, ‘cooking.’ Then she paused and asked, ‘what are you cooking?’ and I said, ‘meat loaf, cabbage and sweet potatoes.’ She got quiet again. It wasn’t long after visiting her at her house and being served cheese, crackers and meat slices for two consecutive weeks that I came to the conclusion that she couldn’t cook, which explains why I was such an interesting specimen to her!” He laughs boisterously. And then, a sadness washes over his face. For Jones, fond memories are often accompanied by the bitter realization of why they are necessary in the first place.
“Her position at the college was understandably stressful, and so she used choir rehearsal, keeping in touch with her friends, and light work outs to relieve some of the stress,” says Jones.
About three times a week before work, the couple would wake up and walk around their Jonesboro, Ga., subdivision. “We always finished by lifting weights at the gym at the club house — she would always lift the light-weight bar.”
One particular day, Dr. Jones complained of soreness under her armpits. “She was always very in tune with her body and went to the doctor at the least sign of pain or discomfort. So she decided to she would make an appointment to check it out the very next week.”
That weekend the Joneses had time of their lives. “Saturday night we tailgated and on Sunday, there was a football game. Before that, we attended two receptions, and boy, Brenda could work a crowd. She was always such a people person.”
When Monday morning came and it was time for her to go to the doctor, she decided to go it alone — thinking it would simply be a routine check-up. “There’s nothing to it, I can handle it,” Jones recalls her saying. A few hours later the doctor called and told Jones to come to the facilities immediately.
“It was like a ton of bricks landed on us. We were on top of the world and there was no warning other than the soreness. Her family had no medical history of cancer except for a great-great grandmother who died from cancer — but she was 82. She wasn’t feeling bad, or under the weather. She was just being Brenda.”
Dr. Jones’ final months were spent with her doing what she did best — planning. Because of this, there are still elements of her present. Jones and their youngest son (of five children), Brandon, have been going back and forth to Daphne, Ala., because “Brenda had it in her mind that Brandon was going to be the King of Mardi Gras, and there are certain steps that must be taken each year,” says Jones. This year, Brandon sits on the Royal Monarch Court — a crucial aspect to clinching the crown. There’s also a vacation that Dr. Jones planned for the two nearly three years ago, among other things that were thoughtfully put into place as retirement age was approaching. And at the college, the $14.2 million for the Allied Health facilities that she personally lobbied the Georgia State legislature for is coming to fruition.
“There were times when we would go to receptions and she was insistent on making sure we greeted every one who was present. She would tell me that she’ll start in the front if I’ll start in the back and that we’d meet somewhere in the middle. Now, there are still receptions that I have to go to, on our behalf, and I find myself working the crowd like only Brenda could. I feel like if she’s watching me that she’d be saying, in her own way, ‘you’re getting there, Morris. You’re getting there.'”
Published in Atlanta Tribune: The Magazine, March 2008