I was an insignificant face in a large crowd at Tuesday's memorial service for Joe Frank Jones at Barton College.
As mourners offered eloquent elegies to the former Barton College philosophy professor, who had died suddenly last week a few years after leaving Barton for Radford College in the Virginia mountains, I thought back to my first long conversation with Joe. We knew each other from Barton events, such as Friends of Hackney Library dinners, where we would talk cordially about all manner of things. Joe was an extrovert who reveled in conversations and discussions and could talk knowledgeably about almost any subject.
One day he called me up and wanted to talk about a column I had written for the newspaper. Unsure what he had in mind or whether this would be another of the haranguing criticisms that anyone who writes for the news media has to face from time to time, I accepted the invitation, and we agreed to meet in the afternoon at the cozy old Starbucks on West Nash Street.
Cordially, with no hint of anger or disrespect, Joe challenged my opinion expressed in the column about the new wave of aggressive atheism that I had seen in newspaper and magazine articles and in popular books. I objected to the implication of some atheists that anyone who believed in God was delusional or scientifically and historically ignorant.
Joe had inferred that I was one of those Christians who look with disdain and condemnation at anyone who is not a devout, in-your-face Christian and who doesn't profess certainty about who is and is not going to heaven. I convinced him that I was not condemning anyone and acknowledged that I had no information about who was and wasn't "right with God." I would not critique someone else's religiosity and would respect their values and moral standards.
Our conversation wandered all over from there. Joe talked about his experience as an irresponsible teenager and his stint in the Air Force and his graduate degrees. I told him about my quandary as I neared college graduation holding a low draft number that virtually guaranteed my induction into the horrors of Vietnam. I told him how I opted for a Coast Guard enlistment and the positive aspects of my time in the service. We discovered we were only months apart in age and had many similar experiences.
At no point was the conversation angry or testy. No one raised his voice. We talked quietly and sipped coffee as we found common ground and greater mutual respect.
That conversation affirmed the tributes in Tuesday's memorial service eulogies. Joe was a man of extraordinarily diverse interests and knowledge who loved thoughtful conversation and debate. He also loved people and had a way of making them love him in return.
I have missed seeing Joe and Polly since they pulled up roots and moved to the Virginia mountains, often posting pictures of their hikes along grand mountain trails. Tuesday's service gave all of us a chance to think back on those wonderful conversations that each of us had, once or often, with Joe.