Our Opinion: Howard Jones leaves legacy of service above self

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People rise before the sun to arrive hours early, forming lines that stretch for blocks. They wait patiently for manna from heaven — boxes of nutritious food handed out four times a year to those in need.

The Opportunities Industrialization Center of Wilson is perhaps best-known for its quarterly food distributions. The long queues, tired eyes and wide smiles are a stark reminder of the hunger and poverty some of our neighbors endure.

Howard Jones, who founded the OIC of Wilson in 1972, helped provide millions of meals to men, women and children who would otherwise go without. His organization feeds the hungry in a spirit of compassion and goodwill, with no judgment and no strings attached.

But providing sustenance is only part of the mission of mercy Jones and the OIC carried out.

As its name implies, the OIC exists to provide opportunity. Getting the down and out back on their feet by providing job training and placement services is central to its philosophy.

“He saw the light in you...,” said Jones’ son, Troy. “He knew you could become more, he knew you could become a greater person.”

Jones was in his 30s when he founded the OIC of Wilson in a small office inside the former Mercy Hospital on Green Street, as the Times’ Olivia Neeley reported. In 1980, the organization moved into the former Vick Elementary School on Reid Street, where it has remained since.

Howard C.R. Jones died Monday at age 84, but the nonprofit he started remains active, and his legacy of offering help and hope is a bright beacon that still burns throughout Wilson County and eastern North Carolina.

Jones will be laid to rest in Evergreen Memorial Gardens following a memorial service today. Elected officials and leaders in the charitable and nonprofit sectors will eulogize the man hailed as a hero for Wilson and eastern North Carolina.

Former Gov. Jim Hunt, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, former Rep. Bob Etheridge, OIC board Chairman Robert Farris, Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance President and CEO Art Taylor and N.C. State University professor Frank Emory Sr. are all scheduled to share their remembrances.

Also speaking is Kristi Jones, one of Howard Jones’ nieces, who serves as Gov. Roy Cooper’s chief of staff. She worked for her uncle at the OIC of Wilson after earning her law degree and before entering the world of state politics as deputy director of Hunt’s 1996 re-election campaign.

“He now belongs to the ages,” said Butterfield, who is proud to have been Jones’ longtime friend. “The citizens of Wilson and adjoining counties have benefited from the life and work of Howard C. Jones, citizen extraordinaire.”

Farris said he also was fortunate to have been close to Jones.

“Wilson and North Carolina have forever been changed because of Howard’s love for his fellow man and his relentless pursuit for every person,” he said.

The OIC has been a godsend for thousands of Wilson residents — those in need of a meal, a sympathetic ear, an advocate and a second chance. Its success stories are legion, with hundreds of workers on the job throughout eastern North Carolina thanks to OIC training, coaching and placement.

As Congressman Butterfield so eloquently said, Wilson lost a giant with Jones’ passing this week. But he also leaves a larger-than-life legacy behind.

The OIC of Wilson remains true to the mission Jones envisioned when he started the organization 45 years ago. It deserves our community’s continued support, especially in the form of donations and volunteers.

We can also preserve Jones’ spirit of charity and kindness to our fellow man.

Our neighbors who hunger should be fed, regardless of the reasons for their need. They deserve compassion, not judgment. Those who are able-bodied and willing to work should be given an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. Groups like the OIC make that possible.

Howard Jones saw charity not as a noun, but a verb — something we do to uplift others and equip them to pay it forward. His outsize presence may be gone, but we can keep his legacy of selfless giving alive.