One of the most beloved figures from the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine’s (WVSOM) history, Olen E. Jones Jr., Ph.D., passed away Jan. 31 at the age of 85.
As WVSOM’s fourth president, Jones led the school from 1987 to 2009, making him the longest-serving president in its history. He helped guide WVSOM through an era of prosperity thanks to his 10-year master plan that outlined a path for immense growth.
During Jones’ time leading WVSOM, the school was brought under West Virginia’s Board of Trustees as a unit of the state’s university system. WVSOM’s class size increased, and several new campus buildings were constructed, including the Fredric W. Smith Science Building, the Roland P. Sharp Alumni Conference Center, the Founders Activity Center, the Admissions Center and the Center for Technology and Rural Medicine. Jones also led the charge to construct a building to house the Robert C. Byrd Clinic.
James W. Nemitz, Ph.D., WVSOM’s current president, was a faculty member and administrator during Jones’ presidency. He remembered Jones as a trailblazer who helped safeguard the school’s future.
“Dr. Jones is one of the giants on whose shoulders we stand. Quite frankly, I do not believe WVSOM would be here today if it wasn’t for him,” Nemitz said. “He secured the school’s place as a state institution and provided for its financial security. Under his leadership, WVSOM saw significant growth in students, employees, buildings and funds and was established as a national leader in osteopathic medical education. We owe a great debt of gratitude to Dr. Jones.”
Bob Foster, D.O., WVSOM’s assistant dean for osteopathic medical education, noted that in addition to advancing the school’s physical facilities, Jones helped improve its financial well-being, impacting the school in a way that positioned it for sustained growth for years to come.
“Dr. Jones made WVSOM one of the most financially prepared higher education institutions in West Virginia,” Foster said. “He not only turned an aging former military school into a beautiful campus, but helped make it a cutting-edge medical school to train rural primary care physicians. That was WVSOM’s mission since its inception; Dr. Jones just made it complete. He and I didn’t always see eye to eye, but he was a great president who took the school from hard times to being No. 1 in the state in many areas.”
Jones earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Marshall University and a Ph.D. degree in education administration from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., before setting out on a career that would include top positions at West Virginia’s higher education institutions. Before joining WVSOM, he served in various leadership roles at Marshall University, including dean of students, provost and executive vice president.
In 1996, Jones won the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine’s Dale Dodson Award for his contributions to the advancement of osteopathic medical education. Other awards he received include a “50 Most Powerful People in West Virginia” designation from West Virginia Executive magazine and recognition as Business Leader of the Year by the Greater Greenbrier Chamber of Commerce.
In an interview published in a 1998 edition of a WVSOM publication called Appalachian Focus, Jones summarized his intentions for the school — goals he would ultimately help the institution meet and exceed.
“When the name WVSOM is mentioned, I hope quality will be the immediate association. As president, I will establish the standards which will become the basis for that quality, for excellence,” he said. “I think there is already a nucleus of fine staff, faculty and certainly students here, and there is a history of quality within these elements. It is this community, the institution itself, that is making a tremendous impact on health care delivery within the state of West Virginia and the various Appalachian states that we serve.”
Jones’ legacy at WVSOM includes two merit scholarships established in his name: the West Virginia Emulation Endowment Trust/Dr. Olen E. Jones Jr. Scholarship, awarded to West Virginia students based on literary and scholastic attainments, morality and leadership, and the Olen E. Jones Jr. and WVSOM Foundation Academic Achievement Award, awarded to a student graduating in the top 10 percent of the class.
Heather Ratliff, D.O., a WVSOM Class of 2004 alumna who also served as a faculty member during Jones’ presidential tenure, praised his ability to selflessly bring out the best in those around him.
“He was the epitome of a humble servant,” Ratliff said. “He expressed enormous, sincere praise to others for their work without ever tooting his own horn, and he made students — including me — believe they could accomplish anything. His smile, like his kindness, truly made the world a better place.”
David Nicholas, D.O., a WVSOM Class of 1993 graduate and past president of the WVSOM Alumni Association, worked with Jones while serving as chair of the school’s Board of Governors. He called Jones “a true gentleman” and said his efforts extended far beyond helping WVSOM achieve its goals.
“Dr. Jones was always kind, professional, and cared deeply about WVSOM and its mission. He set the wheels in motion for the development of the beautiful campus we have today, and he worked tirelessly with West Virginia’s governors and legislators promoting not only WVSOM, but health care throughout the state and Appalachia,” Nicholas said.