Dr. Howard Jones possessed a distinguished and generous spirit that belied his stature as a distinguished scholar, professor, and writer in the field of American foreign relations.
Even after nearly 40 years of teaching and researching history at the University of Alabama, with more than a dozen best-selling, award-winning books – including one that Steven Spielberg drew inspiration from for the film” Amistad” Oscar nominee in 1997 – Jones remained the same Atlanta Braves gentleman – and family loving person, friend, mentor and supportive colleague.
Jones died at age 81 on March 3, 2022 at the Hospice of West Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Services were held on March 13.
“Howard was an extraordinarily kind and gentle man, and unfailingly courteous,” said his colleague Michael J. Mendle, professor emeritus of history at UA. “He put younger and less advanced students at ease and selflessly supported a large number of graduate students. He was a great help to struggling doodlers.
“…Howard was a restraining influence in a sometimes unstable department. He took a turn as chairman – although it wasn’t really his passion – and left the department in better shape than it looked. found it,” Mendle said.
From his arrival at UA in 1974 until his retirement in 2013, Jones delighted more than 200 lecture halls filled with non-majors, led the department benevolently, and, after becoming a research professor, continued to write and to publish books that have proven both academically rigorous and popular with a wide range of readers.
The best known of these would be 1987’s “Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy”, which Spielberg used as key source material for his film, which featured starring Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey and Djimon Hounsou, with a score by John Williams.
“He had this ability, which is rare, that his work could be respected academically, but also be read by a popular audience,” said Joshua Rothman, chair of the UA history department.
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More of Jones’ publications have won awards and made book clubs and bestseller lists, such as his 1992 “Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War”, the 2003 “Death of a Generation : How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War”, the 2010 “Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations”, the 2008 “The Bay of Pigs”, the 1997 “Prologue to Manifest Destiny : Anglo-American Relations in the 1840s” – a collaboration with former student Donald Rakestraw – and the 1977 “To the Webster-Ashburton Treaty: A Study in Anglo-American Relations, 1783-1843”, which won the Phi Alpha Theta Book Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Rakestraw, a professor and chair of the history department at Winthrop University, was one of those former students inspired by Jones to follow in the field. As part of Jones’ services on March 13, Rakestraw read an excerpt from his forthcoming essay in the Peace History Society newsletter, titled “Eyes on the Stars – Feet on the Ground”, a tribute to his friend and mentor .
It reads, in part: “From his epic work on Anglo-American relations in the 1830s and 1840s to his magnum opus on My Lai and from his comprehensive diplomatic manual, ‘Crucible of Power’, to his thought-provoking lectures, the Jones’ comprehensive research and balanced presentation of the complexities of American foreign policy successes and failures have contributed significantly to our understanding of the history of peace and conflict in the modern world…
“…He taught us to write (no passive voice), to research (commit to fleshing out the whole story, leaving no source hidden under an unturned stone), and to translate our efforts into a fully balanced and authentic product – whether in print or lecture.During a round-robin discussion, it also became apparent that his investment was yielding exponential returns, as the training we accumulated was transmitted to our own students and from them to theirs….”
Jones’ works were known not only for attention to detail and rigor of truth, but for his prose style and immersion, of which Rakestraw wrote “…he not only gives voice to his subjects, he “lives” their experience and empathizes with their pain and loss. He told a number of colleagues (myself among them) of the many times he shared his findings on My Lai with his wife Mary Ann, moments that drained them both emotionally. When the book finally came out, no one could engage it without sinking into obscurity and suffering as if sharing a palpable, almost tangible experience with the words of the page.”
Jones’ 2017 work “My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness”, has been called “the standard reference work on My Lai” by Thomas Ricks in The New York Times, and “the definitive work on My Lai” by the Journal of Military History.
Jones was department chairman in the spring of 2000 when Rothman came for a job interview. He was probably the last candidate to be interviewed, because soon after, at Birmingham airport waiting for a flight, he was tipped off, which seems to only happen to doctors or movie heroes.
“‘Dr. Rothman, pick up the courtesy phone,'” recalls Rothman, who worked his way up to full professorship. “I’m a department manager now, and I can’t say I would do that for a new hire. I’d probably wait a few hours. But Howard was a really nice, generous person. He had good news, and he wanted it. share as fast as he could.”
This caring nature extended over the dozen or more years they were colleagues. Even after Jones left the pulpit and became a research professor — with no teaching or administrative responsibilities — he was still checking people in, sympathetic to the concerns and pressures of younger professors.
“We didn’t really talk a lot about work; mostly about baseball,” Rothman said. “He was hardcore.
While working on degrees at Indiana University, Jones pitched for the Hoosiers and remained physically active long into the following years, continuing to play softball on a faculty team until age almost 60 years old. Although Indians are closer to home, where he also taught top before earning his doctorate and moving to UA, Jones was a lifelong fan of the Atlanta Nine.
“It was nice that he could finally see the Braves win the World Series (in 2021) before he died,” Rothman said.
“He was just really genuine…I don’t think you would have ever really guessed that he was so big in his field and prolific,” he said.
Associate Professor of History John Giggie, director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South, said Jones was an “extraordinary mentor” to students and young faculty, training the next generation.
“I remember Howard not only for his intellect, but also for his composure and dedication to his craft,” he said. “He cared deeply about the future of the historical profession, which he always understood as a vocation to uncover the truth about complicated institutions and events, whether slavery, the Bay of Pigs or the Vietnam War.”
UA’s Jones awards include the 1999 Blackmon-Moody Outstanding Professor and the 1989 Burnum Distinguished Faculty Award.
His family suggests that those wishing to honor him make memorial contributions to the Hospice of West Alabama.