Commentary: Gloria Jones’ Everlasting Energy

By Stacia Erdos Littleton

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It was the evening of May 10. I had never seen Gloria Jones so dressed up. She wore a lavender sparkling blouse, lipstick and jewelry. A smile spread across her face when I unexpectedly sat down next to her to say hello at the inaugural InScite Gala at the Tyler History Center.

She was there with her son, David, as the Jones family was being honored as the namesake of Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology – and in large part, the reason for its existence.

I had become friends with Gloria years ago while working for United Way. I had initially reached out to gauge her interest in supporting the new after-school program called Success After 6.

After much discussion, she and Fireline Inc. – the company she and her late husband founded – became generous supporters of the program at MLK Elementary in Youngstown.

She had insisted that the children there have the opportunity to take part in the Raspberry Pi program, a curriculum provided by the Oak Hill Collaborative. It taught students how to build their own mini computers. The students loved it and it became an integral part of Success After 6 at MLK.

I would visit Gloria at her Park Vista apartment every so often where we would talk about art, Youngstown and her life.

(I wish now I would have recorded those discussions.)

I remember talking with her shortly after her daughter, Rachel, died. She was so sad, yet so strong. She was proud of her six grandchildren: Zach, studying computer science in Arizona; Elisabeth, teaching special needs children in Oregon; William, an accomplished welder; Dylan, receiving an engineering degree; Isobel, studying at Penn State; and Laura at Kent State.

I remember one visit  when I asked Gloria, as a scientist, what she thought happened to us after we left this life.  She looked contemplative and as I remember, she said, “Unfortunately and sadly, nothing.”

She had hoped to see her husband and daughter again, but was doubtful. She said she believed we transformed back to our initial energy state – returning to become part of the universe. That stuck with me.

Gloria visited MLK when she could. But it wasn’t easy. She was in a wheelchair. David took her several times a year to take part in Report Card mentoring. The idea was that mentors would meet with the same students quarterly to go over their report cards and set goals for the next grading period.

I often sat with Gloria during the sessions and heard her encourage each child to read every day and to take her studies seriously so she could pursue his dreams.

I was thinking recently that those children had no idea of the extraordinary life the woman sitting across from them had experienced. They likely saw her as an elderly grandmother volunteering her time. Not knowing that she had been a fierce trailblazer who wanted them to be just as fierce in striving for a better life.

They certainly didn’t know that Gloria graduated from Elmira College in New York in 1955 – when not many women even attended college – let alone that she had graduated summa cum laude with double degrees in science and biology.

They could not possibly imagine that she as a young woman would then spend a year traveling in Europe and tutoring English before accepting a position in research at Eton Laboratories, later heading up a research lab at Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo.

Or that she would go on to earn a master’s in physiological chemistry from the University of Buffalo and later another master’s in English from Youngstown State University.

The kids wouldn’t understand that she had been a Fulbright lecturer in Yugoslavia, after she married the love of her life, Roger Jones. Or that they together, in 1967, founded Fireline Inc., which employed hundreds of Youngstown residents over the years – all while she raised her children.

Would they realize she was a passionate humanitarian – active in the NAACP, the library, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Youngstown and that she was a founding member of the Festival of the Arts? Or that she and Roger had visited 48 states, 90 countries, on seven continents?

I often wondered why I felt a connection with Gloria. Our relationship had started as the courting of a potential donor. But Gloria was brilliant, fascinating, and in some ways reminded me of my own grandmother I’d lost a few years earlier.

 She too had gone to college in the 1950s and worked in education as an elementary school teacher for many, many years, while raising four children, and helping to run a farm.

Last September, Gloria moved into a specially built apartment in David and his wife, Caroline’s, home in Canfield. Gloria was able to get around the apartment with a walker and could even go out on the patio to enjoy the outdoors, the flowers and the trees.

A week and a half after seeing Gloria at the gala, I was sitting at work when I got a call from her.

“Hi Stacia. Did you call me?”

I hadn’t but I was glad to hear from her so we could plan our next lunch. We were both eager to get it on the calendar. So we scheduled it for the following week.

On Thursday, May 25, I stopped at Panera to pick up her favorite – half a Napa almond chicken salad sandwich and half a salad. On a whim I bought us smoothies to try – she had the peach and berry. (It was a winner.)

While I was there, our mutual friend Barbara Brothers stopped by. Ours was a short visit because I wanted them to have time together as well. I gave Gloria a hug and said I’d see her again soon.

Exactly one week later, on Thursday, June 1, as my alarm went off that morning, I reached for my phone and saw a post on Facebook from David. “Mom passed peacefully … at 3:10 a.m. Caroline and I were by her side the entire time. She will be greatly missed. We love you, Mom.”

My eyes filled with tears – it never occurred to me that the visit over Panera smoothies would be our last. I tried to call David.

Immediately I felt foolish. He had just lost his mother. I wasn’t family. (He later very graciously returned my call.)

I know she was at least partially right in that educated prediction on what happens when you leave this realm.

Her energy will be everlasting – continuing to fuel those she has touched throughout her life: the jewelry maker who learned to express herself at the Festival of the Arts, the little girl who fell in love with science at Oh Wow, the employees of Fireline who’ve been able to raise their families here, the student who built a computer and is now building the next frontier, and in the child she encouraged to set goals in her studies and is now fiercely reaching for her dreams.

And in this writer who is grateful to have shared a lunch or two with Gloria Jones.