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Pioneer of women’s athletics Dr. Jones passes

The Seminole family shed a tear Monday for the unexpected passing of a pillar of the Florida State Athletics Program, Dr. Billie Jones, who was a force of nature. The Osceola will run what will be an rich obituary tomorrow for Jones, who passed at 93 after a short illness.

In this tribute to Dr. Jones we’ll share intimate quotes about this Seminole legend from those closest to her and we invite you to read a story I wrote for the Seminole Boosters’ Unconquered Magazine this past summer.

“She was just so vivacious but the last few weeks one thing led to another,” said former FSU softball coach Dr. JoAnne Graf, who remained close to Jones.

When people think about creating opportunities in women’s sports, they think those opportunities only go to women but Dr. Graf points out that many of the jobs in women’s athletics are providing opportunities for men in all areas of athletics, as coaches, trainers, strength coaches, equipment managers, sports information, facilities, logistics and administration.

“I hope both men and women appreciate what Dr. Jones did for women’s athletics because it created jobs for everybody, not just for women,” Dr. Graf said. “There are many men coaching and working in women’s athletics because of these opportunities. And a lot of dads have appreciated her fighting for their daughters, providing scholarships, travel budgets, television exposure and all the opportunities the men’s sports enjoy. Dr. Jones fought for their daughters.”

FSU Athletics Director David Coburn knew Dr. Jones well. The father of two daughters, he and his wife, former FSU Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Mary Coburn, are avid supporters of FSU women’s opportunities in sport. 

“Dr. Jones holds a very special place in the history of women’s athletics at Florida State University,” Coburn said. “She was a pioneer in fighting for intercollegiate athletics for women not only at FSU, but nationally. Her’s is one of the faces I reflect on when one of our women’s teams wins a championship. I have watched so many women, from professional women to student-athletes, react to her presence with such incredible respect and admiration. Her leadership and dedication will be missed by all she touched in her long association with FSU.”

Dr. Graf has a healthy perspective on her personal loss.

“I feel lucky to have played for Dr. Jones, to be mentored by her and will be influenced by her for the rest of my life. That’s what I want to remember,” the former softball player said. “She’s had a huge effect on me. She was on the search committee when they first hired coaches, when they hired me in my mid 20s to be a head coach. They trusted me to lead the program and guide the program and they provided the long-term support. She sat in the stands all the time, spent time with my players, supporting me with whatever I needed, whether advice, financial, whatever. She lived a full life and while I am sorry she is gone and I won’t get to see her again, I am glad that I had the opportunity to know her.”

Dr. Jones, an Arkansas native, arrived at FSU in 1970 when there were no scholarships for women and no paid coaching opportunities for women. A professor of Physical Education, Jones coached without a salary or budget, which was the national norm. The coaches and players funded themselves, whether ironing numbers onto jerseys and cramming into their automobiles for road trips and paying for their own tuition, books, housing and meals.

Dr. Jones was determined to effect change — which she did — with relentless lobbying and lots of help from people named in the previously mentioned story. Not everyone enjoyed her persistence. But it paid dividends as her work, in combination with her partner, Dr. Jan Wells, and scores of advocates across the nation led to federal legislation that now mandates schools make progress toward equality for women in athletics or pay a price. 

“She always wanted more, for there to be true equality,” Graf said. “We’re still working toward it. Equality is still a work in progress but, to Billie’s generation, who worked for free, put their own money into it, they have seen how far it has come.”

“Billie was passionate about women’s athletics and stood her ground and people took that as mean,” said former Seminole Booster Vice President Joel Padgett, who worked with Dr. Jones and Dr. Wells on numerous projects and became a personal friend. “Billie was assertive and Billie was one of the kindest people I’ve ever been around. She was concerned about others and I liked her a lot.”

Padgett said Dr. Jones delivered meals on wheels every week until very recently and was everyone’s dog walker out at Westminster Oaks. “When her trees were filled with satsumas, she had me pick them and put them on everyone’s doorstep,” Padgett said. “She also understood women’s athletics financially. She knew that if we want women’s athletics to succeed we have to support them financially nd she and Jan did support them financially and with their participation. She was also very competitive but as important as winning was to her, she was interested in making all of the women student-athletes good citizens.”

But did Dr. Jones realize how much ground she plowed for women’s athletics during her lifetime?

“Yes, I think so,” Dr. Graf said. “She was there at the beginning and was able to see how far the program had come. I think she was proud of what has been accomplished.” 

Alicia Crew, a synchronized swimmer who became Director of Aquatics and later Student Recreation, admired her mentor’s fight for women’s opportunities in athletics.

Dr. Jones realized progress was made “but in her heart not nearly enough,” Crew said. “We talked long and hard about this. Equality should be what everybody wants. She believed you should work for the best, and the most, in all you can accomplish all your life for those things you are passionate about and she was passionate about women’ opportunity in sport.”

Padgett, who visited weekly, had the same conversations with Dr. Jones. “Yes, she did,” Padgett said. “We had long conversations about all kinds of things. I asked that question about the way you did and she said she did and was very proud of it. In the begging it was butting her  head against the wall but recognized the progress.”

Crew said Dr. Jones provided her with marching orders, a list of hundreds of her contemporaries who should be contacted if either she or Dr. Wells should pass. It took a group to make all the calls to former students — men and women — coaches, student-athletes, administrators and friends across the country and the decades. 

“The people we talked to marveled at all the accomplishments made in women’s athletics their generation didn’t have,” Crew said. “And they remain strong about continuing to keep going with reaching equal opportunities for women, not more, equal. They believe, as Billie did, that those athletes will make their own accomplishments, if they have the opportunity.”

Dr. Jones was a beloved mentor to many of the current FSU coaches and athletic administration.

“We were all shocked,” said former Volleyball coach Cecile Reynaud, who has remained friends with Dr. Jones. “Dr. Jones meant everything to me. She hired me to come to Florida State to taker place in 1976, which is an honor, and has been my mentor and role model throughout my career. I’m totally indebted to her for everything I’ve been able to do here at Florida State.”

One year after graduating, Reynaud became head coach at age 22.

“I was shocked and saddened to learn of her passing,” said Senior Associate Athletics Director and Senior Woman Administrator Vanessa Fuchs. “I’m continually indebted to her fight, influence and support of FSU women’s athletics.”

Fuchs contributed to the Unconquered Magazine story this summer, saying: “I can’t begin to tell you how much time (Dr. Jones and Dr. Wells) have spent with our student-athletes, coaches and administrators — including me — and the positive influence they have had on our careers. They are very interested and involved. They like to come to games and events and they like interacting with students — most importantly, they share with us the history of FSU women’s athletics. Many of us consider them mentors.

“Their education of our student-athletes of the early days of women’s athletics to where we are today has made our current student-athletes appreciate how far we have come much more and to have a greater appreciation for their experience today.” 

The obituary, which will be posted on Tuesday afternoon, will detail Dr. Jones amazing career and provide information on how you can contribute to women’s athletic scholarship endowment and/or to scholarships for the school of physical education, each of which Dr. Jones and Dr. Wells contributed generously.

(From left) Dr. Janet Wells, Dr. Mary Coburn and Dr. Billie Jones.