Bob Dylan muse, RIT prof dies at 63

Written by Jeff Spevak, Staff writer on November 13, 2007 for The Democrat & Chronicle

Jeffrey Owen Jones, a film professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and, inadvertently, the featured metaphor in Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” has died.

The 63-year-old Pittsford resident died of lung cancer on Sunday, just five days after delivering his final lecture at RIT. And four decades after inspiring Dylan to write these words, delivered over spooky organ and minor-key piano:

You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’ll say
When you get home
Because something is happening here But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

What was happening was the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and Jones, a summer intern at Time magazine, convinced his editor to allow him to do a story on the harmonica’s folk-music renaissance. He was introduced to Dylan by Peter, Paul and Mary, and led to a truck, where a five-minute interview was conducted as Dylan groupies pounded on the sides of the vehicle.

As it turned out, the harmonica was irrelevant: The following night, Dylan electrified the folk-music world by plugging in his guitar, creating one of the most talked-about events in popular music.

And that fall, when “Ballad of a Thin Man” was included on the Highway 61 Revisited album, Jones recognized Mister Jones, who Dylan fingered as representing an overly smug academic world, and over-educated to the pointof naiveté.

“I was thrilled — in the tainted way I suppose a felon is thrilled to see his name in the newspaper,” Jones wrote in a story for Rolling Stone magazine some years later. “I was awed too that Dylan had so accurately read my mind. I resented the caricature but had to admit that there was something happening there at Newport in the summer of 1965, and I didn’t know what it was.”

“It wasn’t a big thing in his life,” said his brother, Christopher Jones of New York City. “He was amused by it.”

Indeed, much more happened to Jones in the ensuing years. He had been born in Manhattan and raised in Westport, Conn., going on to become a star athlete and Rhodes Scholar finalist at Williams College, Williamstown, Mass. He spent time in Uruguay on a Fulbright Scholarship, earned a master’s degree at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., and lived in Spain for a while, writing and directing films.

He returned to Williams College to teach Spanish and take on the post of dean of freshmen, moved on to become editor of Psychology Today magazine, worked for CBS, produced promotional and educational videos and won a New York Emmy in 1997 for Outstanding Fine Arts Programming.

He was 54 when he and his wife, Ellen, had a son, Eli. They moved to Pittsford where he had several jobs before settling in at RIT to teach film and animation. With pencil still in hand, he even worked at the Democrat and Chronicle as a copy editor several years ago.

“He just loved Rochester, loved Pittsford, loved his friends here,” said Christopher Jones. “He had a 9-year-old son, that’s the real tragedy, and he didn’t want to spend his last days in some kind of experimental program and not be with his son.”

Jones was diagnosed with lung cancer just two months ago, but it quickly spread throughout his body. Besides his wife, Ellen Hyman Jones, son Eli Owen Jones and brother Christopher Jones, he is survived by his brother Robert Haydon Jones of Westport, Conn., and sisters Jeremy Jones of Philadelphia and Jude Anne Jones and Pamela Cathlyn Jones, both of Westport.

A memorial service will be held at 12:30 p.m. today at St. Catherine of Siena Church, 26 Mendon-Ionia Road, Mendon.

“He was a loving person with a tremendous personality,” Christopher Jones said. “It’s a cliché, but he never had a bad word to say about anyone. People came from literally all over the world — Spain, California, Indianapolis, I mean everywhere — to say goodbye to him.”

“Dylan didn’t paint a vignette of my brother that one would necessarily be proud of,” said his sister Pamela Cathlyn Jones. “But I think my brother was in the middle of history making. As my brother Christopher said, he was highly educated, but full of soul himself, and played the harmonica himself. And he drove a VW.”

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