First Citizen winner epitomizes quiet community service

Published 9:41 pm Saturday, April 25, 2009

When Del. S. Chris Jones (R-76th) was named the 2009 Suffolk First Citizen by the Suffolk Rotary Club, he was the only one surprised.

“I never thought I would have been the First Citizen of Suffolk,” Jones, 50, said. “I was very humbled by it.”

Jones received the call while he was on the House floor this winter, debating issues with the other 99 members of the Virginia House of Delegates, the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly.

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“You’re kidding, right?” was his first response, Jones said.

“I was very surprised, just knowing some of the people who’ve been it before,” he said, thinking of such past winners as Betsy Brothers, Curtis Milteer, Andy Damiani, Dana Dickens, Ross Boone, Whitney Saunders, Sue Woodward, Sam Glasscock and Mills Godwin.

In 1956, the First Citizen award went to R.L. Woodward Jr. The annual award for service to the city was begun that year by the Cosmopolitan Club of Suffolk. When the club disbanded in the 1990s, the Suffolk Rotary Club stepped in to fill the gap.

A resident of Suffolk since 1961, Jones volunteered with the Chuckatuck Volunteer Fire Department and the rescue squad throughout his teen years. He graduated from John Yeates High School in 1976. He then attended Randolph Macon College, and received his bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the Medical College of Virginia in 1982.

Three years later, Jones became president and pharmacist at Bennett’s Creek Pharmacy, and the year after that he began a 12-year stint on City Council, representing the Chuckatuck borough. During that time, he served as vice mayor for four years and as mayor for four years. He and his wife, Karen, have one daughter, Kaitlin, and the family attends Mount Zion Fellowship Church.

Jones is a member of many professional pharmacists’ associations, and has been honored with numerous awards, including the J. Paul Councill Jr. Community Service Award, the Treasurers’ Association of Virginia 2004 Legislator of the Year, and the Virginia Retail Merchants Association 1995 Virginia Retailer of the Year award.

Therefore, it wasn’t much surprise to many of his friends and colleagues when he received one more honor.

“I’m surprised he hasn’t been named the First Citizen before,” said Val Livingston, executive director for The Genieve Shelter. “He deserves it.”

In Suffolk

Suffolk Mayor Linda T. Johnson called Jones a man of his word who is a “great asset” to Suffolk.

“What he tells you is what you know is going to be,” Johnson said. “Oftentimes, he makes the right choice, even if it’s not the most popular choice.”

Jones especially made his presence known after a tornado struck Suffolk a year ago, Johnson said.

“He was the first phone call I got on my cell phone,” Johnson said. “The next thing I knew, the governor called me. Chris had put that call in (to the governor).”

Jones was at the King’s Fork High School shelter all night, Johnson said, hugging, talking and helping to feed the crowd.

“He was absolutely there from the beginning to the end,” the mayor said.

Johnson fills her family’s prescriptions at Bennett’s Creek Pharmacy, and therefore knows Jones as a pharmacist as well as a city servant and friend, she said. Jones has been known to meet customers at the pharmacy in the middle of the night to fulfill a pressing need.

“He really has that personal touch that I think we’ve lost a lot today,” Johnson said.

Two of Jones’ former colleagues on City Council — themselves past First Citizen honorees — described him as a conscientious council member, vice mayor and mayor.

“He was an aggressive person who checked into matters very closely and very thoroughly,” said Vice Mayor and 2005 First Citizen honoree Curtis Milteer, who was on council the entire time Jones was. “He’s a down-to-earth, good person, and I think he’s deserving.”

First Citizen 1982, Andy Damiani, said Jones learned quickly after he came to his first City Council meeting in tennis shoes.

“He had never been to City Hall,” Damiani said. “Chris was a very quick learner.”

Damiani called Jones a “90-day wonder,” likening his learning process on council to military officers’ school.

“He learns real fast. He’ll ask the right questions.”

Jones always was very careful to ensure that what council was doing was fair to everyone, Damiani said.

“When something was not right, he would challenge it,” Damiani said.

Although Jones and Damiani occasionally sparred over issues, they never got angry, Damiani said.

“We disagreed without being disagreeable,” Damiani said. “He’s not a diehard with a closed mind. His mind is open to solving the problem.”

In the General Assembly

Jones’ counterparts in the Virginia legislature have found him to be a leader on the state level, as well.

“We’ve had a few disputes over the years, but he’s truly one of the leading and senior minds that we have,” said Del. Morgan Griffith, House majority leader. “He’s just about the most pleasant person you’d ever want to meet.”

Jones was a leader in the last redistricting done by the General Assembly, Griffith said.

“He was the person on the floor the most,” he said. “He met with lawyers and worked everything out. He’d smile and he’d consistently say, ‘We’ve done this in accordance with the law.’”

“He is a leader behind the scenes,” Griffith added. “I would have to say that Chris is just a great guy, he’s very smart, keeping up with some of the issues he’s particularly involved in.”

In the neighborhood

Mayor Johnson thinks she knows why Jones was named First Citizen.

“I think whether he’s serving in Richmond or in the shelter or as mayor, which he did so admirably, Chris’s heart and soul is in Suffolk,” Johnson said. “They’re not just people he represents, they’re his friends and his neighbors, and he just cares.”

Val Livingston credited Jones’s character as the driving force to his success.

“He is a person that keeps his word, and keeping your word in the most important thing anyone can do,” Livingston said. “In the 13 years I have been here, Chris Jones has always been someone I have always known I could call to ask him for whatever we needed with the shelter and he would do it.”

Jones’s dedication to the Genieve Shelter was so powerful, that the shelter’s new transitional housing facility, CJ’s Place, was named for Jones.

“He was working with the shelter for years before I ever came here, and he has continued to support us,” Livingston added. “I can’t recall a time when I counted on him for something and he didn’t do it. That’s the kind of person you can really respect.”

Pastor Claude Marshall said Jones shows those same character traits as a church member.

“I think of Chris as the ultimate servant-leader,” Marshall said. “I have seen him sacrificially serve and give time and time again.”

Marshall added that while Jones is not one for the spotlight, he is quick to come alongside ministry leaders in the church to help out in any way he can.

“He is a public figure, but he enjoys being in the position where he can serve quietly,” he said. “And that’s what he does. He’s a great servant. He’s a great dad, and we’re just thrilled for him.”

Jones will formally receive his First Citizen award from the Suffolk Rotary Club during a special award’s banquet Thursday night at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.

Suffolk Rotary Club President Everett Birdsong said Jones is the right man to receive one of the city’s highest honors.

“He’s the perfect fit for a very prestigious list of former First Citizens of Suffolk,” Birdsong said. He added that the point of the First Citizen award is to honor those who exemplify citizenship and significant leadership in the community in order to make Suffolk a better place to live.

“To me, that sums it all up: to make the city the best it can be,” Birdsong said. “We just feel Chris has done that and we wanted to honor him in this way.”

Tickets are still available for Thursday’s night festivities. Tickets cost $30 and can be purchased at the Suffolk Visitor’s Center, ReMaxx Across Town or the Suffolk First Bank, Bridge Road location.