by Con Marshall
The last member of one of Chadron’s most prominent sports families to reside here is packing up and heading south.
|Sharon and Rex Jones are moving to Wichita|
It will be the third time the Joneses have left Chadron, but they’re not going away mad. Both say they have enjoyed living in Chadron the past 16 years since retiring. But Rex has already celebrated his 80th birthday and Sharon admits hers isn’t too far away, so they feel it’s time to be closer to family. Their oldest son Jerry, his wife Lisa and their two adult children live in Wichita.
"We decided it would be good to be closer to one of our kids,” Sharon explained. “We could have moved to the Denver area, where our daughter, Julie, her husband Marty Coniglio (the Channel 9 weatherman on Denver TV), and their two kids live, but we decided on Wichita. We think it is easier to get around there than it is in Denver.”
Sadly, their youngest son, Rick, who also had two children, passed away two years ago this fall following a lengthy bout with cancer.
The daughter of Ed and Helen Franey, Sharon is a Dawes County native. She was born and raised on a farm near Crow Butte southeast of Crawford. Both of her brothers, Melburn and Max, and their families live in Chadron. A sister, Shirley, lives in California.
Rex was born in Sidney. He’s the middle child of the 11 born to Dick and Alice Jones. The family moved to Chadron on Dec. 17 1948, about two weeks before the Blizzard of ’49 struck.
Rex was 11 at the time and enrolled in the sixth grade at the Kenwood School. The three oldest kids were gone from home when the move was made and Rose Mary, a senior at Sidney High, remained there so she could graduate with her classmates. But the seven youngest Joneses received their diplomas from Chadron High.
The first five were boys—Ross, Rex, twins Ronnie and Donnie and Roger—followed by two girls—Janice and Judy.
Rex said the move to Chadron was made so his dad could help a brother in a new business venture. Bill Jones was closing his grocery store at the corner of Second and Chadron Avenue (where West 2nd Appliance is located) and using the same building to open a dealership to sell Plymouth, Chrysler and Nash cars.
Before long, the business expanded to a new large building on North Main Street where Cerny Body Shop is now located. Bill was the business manager and salesman and Dick was a mechanic. After a few years, Bill switched to ranching northeast of Chadron and Dick went to work for Vern and Roy Chicoine’s Ford dealership on West Second Street.
Eventually, Dick joined the maintenance and grounds staff at Chadron State College and worked there until retiring in the late 1970s.
The Jones boys were football standouts at Chadron High. Ross was a lineman and graduated in 1952. The Cardinals hadn’t done well on the gridiron for several years, but suddenly in the fall of 1954 a new coach, Gordon “Fuzz” Watts, took over and with Rex Jones calling the signals out of a “split T” formation the Red Birds began drawing lots of attention.
They went 8-0-1 in ’54 for Chadron High’s first undefeated season since 1926. The Cards won both the Panhandle B and Northwest Conference championships.
The town went bonkers over the football team’s success. Two drug stores and a café offered the players free malted milks and Pace Theater gave them movie passes.
Jones was the most decorated player. He was tabbed the Class B all-state quarterback by the media.
Here’s a paragraph about him that was in the Chadron Record’s season wrap-up story written by Don Prather.
“Jones generaled the Cards throughout the season with few, if any, tactical mistakes. His passing was brilliant—particularly to Tom Blundell. His pitchouts frequently worked to perfection. And, his deception on the bootleg play throughout the season confounded both the defense and the fans.”
Rex, who also set the Chadron High single-game basketball scoring record of 30 points and held the school’s pole vault record, was a senior that fall, but the Cardinals’ football dynasty was just beginning. Their record during a 10-year stretch was 76-11-4 and they won 11 conference championships.
The Cards were 7-1-1 in 1955 and 9-0 the following year when Ronnie Jones was the quarterback and Donnie Jones was tabbed a first-team, all-class, all-stater at offensive guard. Brad Ferguson in 1984 is the only other Chadron High gridder to ever receive the all-class honor.
The twins also were starters on Verne Lewellen’s basketball teams that reached the state basketball tournaments in both 1956 and 1957. The latter team finished 22-2 their senior year.
Roger, the youngest of the Jones boys, played guard on another of the Cards’ undefeated football teams in the fall of 1960. The following summer he and classmate Larry Miller played in the Nebraska Shrine Bowl in Lincoln.
After graduating from high school, Rex continued his football career at Chadron State College. Individually, his best season was as a sophomore in 1956, when he was the starting quarterback on the 5-2-1 team coached by Paul Glod,
Glod was at CSC just one year and Bill Baker returned as the Eagles’ head coach. Baker wasn’t familiar with the T formation and switched the Eagles to the single wing. Thus, Rex lost his full-time starting job under center, but still played quarterback on the “side saddle T” alignment Baker sometimes used and held for the placekicker. He was one of eight seniors on the roster in 1958, when the Eagles went 8-0 and annihilated most of their opponents, outscoring them 251 to 66.
A 60-year reunion of the 1958 team, as well as others in the Baker era, is being organized by Baker, now 90 and a resident of Tucson, Ariz. It will take place during homecoming this fall. Rex and Sharon have already made reservations at a Chadron motel.
They also are looking forward to the next Jones family reunion, which they hope will be at Fort Robinson, in the summer of 2019.
Football is what brought the couple together. With smiles, they say she literally “fell for” him.
Sharon was a freshman at CSC in the fall of 1957. Prior to a home game, a pep rally and bonfire was held on C Hill. It was dark when the participants were coming down the hill to the campus. She stumbled and was falling, but Rex caught her before she hit the ground.
After the unusual introduction, they began dating. She earned a one-year teaching certificate, then taught a rural school near Crawford the next year. They were married in June 1959, just a couple of weeks after Rex had graduated.
No one could have imagined all the awards and honors Rex would receive during his career.
His first job in the fall of ’59 was as a teacher and assistant coach at Mullen. The next two years, he was the head football and track coach at Hemingford and then spent five years at Rushville before returning to Chadron High in the fall of 1967. He coached the Cardinals five years before succeeding Jim Myers as the high school principal in 1972.
Three years later, he became the associate director of the Nebraska School Activities Association in Lincoln. He had that position 26 years before the Joneses retired and returned to Chadron in 2002.
Sharon completed her bachelor of science in education degree at CSC after the family moved back to Chadron, graduating in December 1971. She also worked in Head Start here and taught pre-school in Lincoln about 10 years prior to becoming the assistant editor of the Nebraska Farmer magazine, a job she thoroughly enjoyed, for about 10 years before joining Rex in retirement.
“We could have stayed in Lincoln after we retired, but we wanted to live in a smaller town,” Sharon recalls. “We looked at some of the towns around Lincoln, but decided we’d rather come back to Chadron. Rex knew the hunting and fishing would be better back this way. It was our ‘homecoming’.”
Yes, he is an outdoorsman. He said pheasant hunting is his favorite, but he’s also enjoyed hunting ducks and geese and admits to spending many hours fishing, often at Angostura and other lakes in South Dakota with friends such as Rich Stahla, who, for the same reason as the Joneses are leaving Chadron, moved with his wife Joyce to Fort Collins about a year ago.
Coaching football was one of Rex’s passions. As his 70-37-5 record attests, he had lots of success doing it. His most successful team was his final team at Rushville in 1966, when the Longhorns went 11-0.
Omaha World-Herald sportswriter Conde Sargent called them “a once in a lifetime team, a squad you dream about but rarely ever have.”
Two years ago, that team, along with the Longhorns’ Class C state championship wrestling team that winter, received the Golden Anniversary Award at the Nebraska High School Athletic Hall of Fame program in Lincoln.
During much of his tenure with the NSAA, Jones was director of the football, cross-country, wrestling and track and field state championships.
He was a member of the National High School Football Rules Committee for 25 years and also was on the National High School Wrestling and Track and Field Rules Committees. He was chairman of both the football and wrestling committees.
Changes he helped make included allowing football coaches to go onto the field to talk to their players during timeouts and prohibiting wrestlers from moving to lower weights after the season began. He refereed both high school and college wrestling matches during the sport’s formative years in Nebraska.
Rex was inducted into the Chadron State Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995 and received the college’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2001, a year before the Joneses moved back to Chadron.
He also received the Section 5 (six states) Citation Award from the National Federation of State High School Associations in Boston in June 2002 and was inducted into the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2003.
In March 2009, Rex was one of three recipients of the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s Dan Gable “America Needs Wrestling” Award. The award is one of the most prestigious anyone connected with that sport can receive.
Rex has fond memories of all phases of his career and likes to discuss some of the changes he’s witnessed.
For instance, he recalls that when he played and coached, the quarterbacks called most of their own plays. Coaches seldom sent someone from the sidelines to the huddle with instructions.
He feels fortunate to have coached some excellent quarterbacks. One of them was Gary Hollstein, the field general for Rushville’s 8-1-1 and 11-0 teams in the mid-1960s. Hollstein also set the Nebraska Class C high hurdles record of 14,6 seconds that lasted 38 years.
After taking over the Cardinals in 1967, Curt Lecher was the quarterback for teams that went 8-2 and 9-1. The following year, Lee Baumann called the signals and played in the Shrine Bowl the following summer, when Rex was an assistant coach for the North team.
As the director of the State Wrestling Tournaments, Jones often called on Chadron friends such as Doug Bailey, Neil Daniels, Bob Hageman, Charlie Littrel, Jerry McCance and Tom Thompson to come to Lincoln to help out.
Rex also notes that Bobby Colgate began assisting with the tournament as a Chadron eighth grader, continued helping through high school and college and then succeeded him in the NSAA office when he retired. Colgate is now director of Sports and Sports Medicine for the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis.
In that capacity, Colgate has been one of the national leaders in protecting athletes from concussions and receiving proper attention if they suffer a concussion.