TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - Ben Jones has fond memories of the blackberries he used to savor during long-ago summers.
“My mama used to love to bring blackberries in. When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of food,” the 85-year-old Tupelo resident said. “Blackberries were something good to eat.”
People know Jones as a football and basketball coach, who was inducted into the Mississippi Association of Coaches Hall of Fame in 1981.
He took his winning ways all over the state during his coaching career, with teams in Fulton, New Albany, Tupelo, Hatley, Meridian and Gulfport.
But before he learned to teach individual kids how to play together as a team, he learned about plain hard work.
“When I was just a youngster, a young kid, a young boy, my grandfather had some land in Monroe County where I grew up,” Jones said. “I’d walk to school and see that timberland. He would cut that timber every now and then, and would have some extra money for a while.”
When Jones was 6 years old, his grandfather let him use an acre of land. If Jones worked it right, it would yield a bale of cotton for him to sell.
On another patch of land, Jones had a vegetable garden where he raised watermelons and peas. His father was disabled, but he sometimes helped at harvest time.
“My dad would drive his wagon,” Jones recalled. “We’d peddle right from the wagon.”
He played football at Amory High School, and appreciated the coaching he got from Fay Reid and Melvin Hemphill.
“They were good folks,” he said. “I got the idea to follow them as far as coaching was concerned.”
But ideas aren’t worth much without the effort to make them real. Jones needed an education first, and for that, he needed money.
His granddaddy stepped in again, but not by providing any cash. Instead, he told Jones about how a man could make himself useful during the Texas wheat harvest.
On the day after high school graduation in 1948, he and a friend began hitchhiking to Amarillo, Texas. They arrived before the harvest began, so got jobs in a warehouse.
“After working a week, my friend didn’t like it and wanted to go home,” he said.
Jones hitched a ride to Hereford, Texas, where a man named Raymond Childers put him to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week.
“He encouraged me,” Jones said. “He encouraged me to go to college.”
Jones decided on the University of Mississippi, but he had more work to do. He hitched to jobs in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.
“You didn’t know anyone,” he said. “You had to just go there. Usually, you’d see some people there and you’d ask if they needed anybody.”
At the end of the harvest, he went to the Canadian border to say he’d been there, then he hitchhiked home.
“When I got back, I had $400 or $500,” he said. “That was almost enough for Ole Miss. I had $120 per semester, and I allowed myself $10 a week for food.”
The next summer he sold Bibles in North Carolina, and after his sophomore year, he worked at a foundry in Wisconsin.
“I thought it was hell,” he said. “A foundry was where you heat up metal until it’s a red-hot liquid and you pour it into a mold. I was there three or four weeks, and I decided to go back to the wheat harvest.”
His coaching career started not long after that, and along the way, he remembered his grandfather’s timberland, as well as something Childers had said in Texas.
“He said, ‘Get you some land. When you can, get you some land,’” Jones said.
His coaching days are over, but he’s still a landowner.
“I’ve got timberland in eight or nine counties,” he said. “I’ve got about 1,200 acres.”
And that land produces tasty blackberries that Jones can’t resist this time of year.
“You’ve got to deal with the chiggers,” he said. “If you don’t mind that, it’s worth it.”
Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, https://djournal.com
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