Surry coach, a Suffolk native, dies at 56

Published 10:57 pm Monday, December 29, 2008

For Dr. Clarence Penn, the former and long-time superintendent of Surry County Public Schools, Larry Donnell “Coach Bear” Jones went from his student to a fellow teacher to “one of the most dedicated educators, and one of the finest educators, I’ve ever met.”

Penn taught Mr. Jones while he was in graduate school at Virginia State University. For two years at John F. Kennedy High School in Suffolk, where he graduated in 1970, and for 33 years in Surry, Mr. Jones was an outstanding, selfless teacher who impressed even his own teacher.

He died Friday, at 56, after years of living with diabetes and heart problems.

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“We’re extremely proud and happy for him, because he’s not suffering anymore,” said Penn, who worked with Mr. Jones at Surry for 21 years.

“There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for the children he worked with. He was a great family man, and he was a great church man. He’s outstanding in every respect, and I feel very strongly about that,” said Penn.

While attending Virginia State, Mr. Jones was the athletic director at Baptist Children’s Home in Petersburg. After graduating, he was an industrial arts instructor at John F. Kennedy in Suffolk.

Phil Braswell, a former teacher, coach and athletic director at Nansemond River High School, coached JV football and JV baseball with Mr. Jones at Kennedy.

“He was a great guy to be around, and he did anything you asked of him,” said Braswell.

Braswell and Mr. Jones were new, young teachers at JFK in 1974. Mr. Jones’ father, the late John E. Jones, was the assistant principal at Kennedy. Despite his health problems, Mr. Jones was still teaching at Surry this year.

“I’m not really surprised he was still teaching. They (Mr. Jones and his father) loved kids, and they always wanted to get the best out of kids,” said Braswell.

During his 33 years teaching in Surry, Mr. Jones was an accomplished and innovative teacher, as well as “Coach Bear” for Surry County High School’s football and basketball teams.

Mr. Jones founded American Industrial Arts Student Association (later known as the Technology Student Association) chapters in Suffolk and Surry. He earned numerous teacher of the year awards, awards for his work in the Technology Student Association and leadership and service awards.

“I don’t know when, or if, he was planning to retire,” Penn said. “Some say he might have been retiring at the end of this school year.”

Throughout his career, Mr. Jones taught computer construction, drafting, computer-aided design, video production and adult computer classes. On the athletics side, he was the defensive line coach for Surry’s football team. He was a football statistician advisor, public address announcer during football and basketball games and the clock keeper for basketball games.

The students he mentored and taught through the TSA traveled to conferences and earned many state, regional and national awards.

“Money was never an issue with him,” Penn said. “In the 21 years I worked with him, I never had a conversation in which he talked about what he was making. He just was not that kind of person.

“He didn’t mind teaching. He didn’t mind working hard, and he loved coaching. I wish I had 10 of him,” said Penn.

Penn said every teacher and at least 90 percent of the students who have been in the Surry Public Schools during the last 30 years would know and thank Mr. Jones.

“Anyone knew they could come to him for help, and he would always help in any way he could. He touched a lot of this community.”

“Every time I would see someone from Surry,” Braswell said, “if I asked them about Bear they’d say the same thing — that he was a great teacher and the kids loved him. Everyone says the same thing.”

As for the nickname, “Coach Bear”, it was obvious in one way, but not so obvious in a more meaningful way.

“The kids loved him and called him ‘Bear’, the kids came up with that,” said Braswell.

“He was ‘Coach Bear’ because of his size, but also because of his personality. He was not a mean coach. He was a teddy bear, and he was very kind-hearted,” said Penn.

“His size was intimidating at first, but that wasn’t him, and all the kids knew that,” Penn said.

“I’m extremely proud to have known him and to have worked with him.”

A celebration of Mr. Jones’ life will be held at Mt. Nebo Baptist Church, Surry, at 1 p.m. Wednesday. A wake will be held at the church from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday. Interment will be at St. Paul Holiness Church Cemetery.