Essay: Jesse Holman Jones (1874-1956)

“Success is measured by the service you render and the character of citizen you make rather than by the amount of money you amass.”Jesse H. Jones

Jesse Jones came to fame by shining in real estate and banking, and led the way for the city of Houston to become a major commercial port for the South. A successful young businessman in the construction field at the turn of the 20th century, Jones was responsible for building the city’s first three skyscrapers, which housed Texaco, The Houston Chronicle, and a Luxury Hotel. In addition, Jesse successfully lobbied Congress in Washington to get the Houston Ship Channel built, a crucial moment in the city’s expansion. He soon gained a national reputation.

In World War I, Woodrow Wilson prevailed upon Jesse to serve his country. Jones headed the American Red Cross aid effort in Europe. His responsibilities included recruiting battlefield nurses and doctors, organizing field hospitals, canteens and ambulance networks. Three famous American writers met as ambulance drivers in Jones’ service, Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings and John Dos Passos. At wars’ end, Jones helped to establish the Red Cross as a permanent relief organization.

During the depression, due to Jones’ brilliance, no banks in Houston failed. This was quite a feat and it landed him the chairmanship of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) in Washington, which sought to pull the nation’s banks through the financial crisis. Under President Franklin Roosevelt the RFC provided the financial underpinning of the New Deal and Jones was the brains behind the operation. As head of the RFC he was the most powerful fiscal officer since Alexander Hamilton. He bailed out the nation’s banks, railroads and farmers through the effective use of credit loans. During the period Jones was called the “fourth branch of government.” He was a crucial figure who, maybe more than anyone, helped save the American economy during the Depression years. F.D.R. was the great leader who gave the people hope and confidence that better times lay around the corner, Jones was the technician laboring behind the scene who made sure that he was right.

But he wasn’t finished; in 1940 F.D.R. appointed Jones Secretary of Commerce and left him in charge of the RFC also! With nearly unbounded authority he prepared the country for World War II, re-tooling industry to build the “arsenal of democracy.”

After the War, Jones returned to Houston and continued to serve his neighbors. He founded local Endowments and scholarship programs, including programs for women and minority students. When he finally passed away in the mid-fifties, he had helped thousands of students through scholarship programs in colleges and universities around the country. He embodied all the qualities that helped make the country strong; industriousness, sense of service and patriotism, investment in the country and its people for common gains, not just personal ones.

Be Seeing You…

Cite: “Brother Can You Spare A Billion”: PBS documentary aired 4/3/2000

 

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