March 1, 2021, Susan Harber
Robert Lee Jones was an outstanding first president of present-day Middle Tennessee State University from 1911-1922.
He was born in 1867 on a farm in White County on Pinhook Road near Sparta. Robert was of Welsh descent and has a fascinating heritage of colonels in the Revolutionary War, as well as relations living in the British Colonies that became the original United States of America. Relatives within his lineage are primarily buried in White County.
Robert’s parents were Zachariah Jones (1822-1914) and Mary ‘Mollie’ Bennett Jones (1826-1902). Zachariah was born near Sparta and was a lifelong farmer on land he purchased near his birthplace. Mary’s parents Walker and Emily Hughes Bennett of Virginia were pioneers of White County. Mary was skilled in carding and spinning as a young girl. During the Civil War, she provided garments for her family created from her beautiful homespun wool. She bore eleven children including Pirt, Helen, Sarah, James, Matilda, Ann, Susan, Mary, Martin, William, and Robert Lee, who was the youngest.
Robert’s paternal grandparents were Thomas Jones (1788-1883) and Susan Montgomery Jones (1795-1853) of North Carolina, and they had eleven children. Thomas followed an Emigrant’s Trail over the mountains to White County in 1796 where he was one of the first settlers. In 1812, Thomas enlisted in the War of 1812 and served under Captain Matthew Cowan Company from 1814-1815. Under General William Carroll, Thomas fought with Brevet Major General Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans. Robert’s paternal great-grandfather was Sergeant Ebenezer Jones (1746-1796), who was born in Delaware in British Colonial America. Major William Thomas Jones (1724-1798) was his great-great grandfather. William was a Planter on 158 acres of ‘Peppers Choice’ in Somerset, Maryland. He fought in the Revolutionary War and supported England. Ebenezer Jones (1692-1762) was Robert’s great-great-great grandfather and lived in Delaware serving as a Sergeant in Captain Joseph Dickinson’s Maryland Militia.
Having great ambition at an early age, Robert sought big dreams for his career. He was a local teacher at age 17 and paid his own tuition to Onward Seminary that was intact from 1890-1924 in White County. He also attended Burritt College in Spencer. After graduation, he enrolled in advanced courses in the University of Chicago.
On July 26, 1888, Robert Lee wed Mary Green (born 1869), whose parents were Obadiah Green and Angeline Plumlee of Sparta. Their only child was Horace Grady Jones of whom Horace Jones Field was named in 1933 at our football stadium at MTSU. Horace was a Mathematics professor and first Bursar of the school. Horace was also an excellent athletic administrator. Mary’s paternal grandparents were Avery Green (1798-1880) and Polly Taylor (1808-1884) of the Doyle community of White County. Avery was a White County Court Trustee and collected debts of local citizens.
Robert was elected at age 23 as a Superintendent of Schools in White County and remained from 1891 to 1895. He was then president of Doyle College in White County for two years. In 1901, Robert was appointed a member of the State Board of Education. He moved to Chattanooga in 1897 where he taught public school. He was Superintendent of schools in Hamilton County from 1903-1907. Governor Malcolm Patterson appointed Robert as State Superintendent in 1907. Robert was on a path of advancement that was exciting and full of challenge.
On November 10, 1911, Robert was the inaugural and historical president of Middle Tennessee State Normal School in Murfreesboro. The school commenced on September 11, 1911 with 19 faculty members and offered a two-year program with an enrollment of 125 students in five buildings on 100 acres.
The initial timeline of MTSU is quite extraordinary and evolved as a gift to Rutherford County. Middle Tennessee Normal School in Murfreesboro was a reality due to the General Education Bill of 1909. The school was founded as one of three state Normal schools for educator instruction. The campus was a new ‘demonstration school’ with a strong circle of learning for student teachers. Tom Harrison and Joe Black owned the original property in the eastern town limits. The State Board of Education paid $5,000 for 20 acres, and 8 acres were donated with more expansion ahead. The school provided a two-year teaching program and a four-year high school in 1911. Registration was $2.00, and a rented room cost $1.50 a week, while the dining hall charged $10 a month.
Horse and buggy was the mode of transportation on campus in the early 20th century. Robert was fully supportive of the first library that opened doors in 1912 with 75 donated books. The library was central to providing key knowledge for students. Betty Avent Murfree was the first outstanding librarian and remained in this role until 1935. The library was in the Kirksey Old Main building and contained 8 shelves.
Robert also promoted the assembly of an early athletic program. In 1913, a football team was on the field with Alfred B. Miles as coach. The team was undefeated in 1914. The team carried a trademark name Pedagogues, which means ‘teacher’. Alfred Miles was multi-talented as biology professor, as well as base-ball, basketball and football coach. In 1917, Red Floyd was the famed football coach and carried the team to great heights. Furthermore, in 1913, a baseball team was organized on the premises of the school.
President Jones was an imposing stature of 6 feet and 6 inches and gained large respect from students with his affable manner and strong leadership. He was a Mason and Democrat in Murfreesboro and visible to all as an activist for education. His mainstay was to promote advanced academia and expansion for a burgeoning enrollment. Robert was a brilliant man and was brimming with ideals to secure success for the administration, professors and students.
After the retirement of Robert Lee Jones, the Normal School became a four-year State Teachers’ College in 1925 and offered a Bachelor of Science degree. A Bachelor of Arts Degree was added in 1935. In 1943, the Tennessee General Assembly officially renamed the school as Middle Tennessee State Teachers College.
Middle Tennessee State University is currently celebrating 109 active and productive years of preparing a generation of students for prominent careers. The campus serves as a primary hearthstone for the enlightenment and excellent learning skills for scores of students. Jones Hall was constructed in Classical Revival Style in 1922 and is a testament to the vision and strong expertise of our first president. Great acclaim is bequeathed to Robert Lee Jones as a founding father in the origination of our prospering school.