“Let’s not forget that the lives of human beings are involved, and none must be allowed to suffer for want of food, clothing, or shelter. No one is willing to allow this.”

Jesse H. Jones, October 23, 1936

“You can balance the budget all right, personal or government, but you will get hungry when there is no meat in the smoke house or meal in the barrel.”

Jesse H. Jones, December 3, 1937

“I represent the original alphabetical relief agency, the RFC… The idea of the RFC was good, but it was a year late, and … was entirely too timid and too slow to save us from disaster. Five to seven billion dollars judiciously lent in 1931 and ’32 would have prevented… the complete breakdown in business, agriculture, and industry.”

Jesse H. Jones, October 23, 1936

steven fenberg

From the time he arrived in HOuston... Jones had nurtured a reciprocal relationship with his community, intent on both building his businesses and improving his city. To Jones, they were connected-only if the city prospered, would he succeed., Steven Fenberg, Unprecedented Power

I was born and raised in Houston, and during my childhood vaguely knew about Jesse Jones. My parents’ first store—Nolen’s Jewelry—was located in a downtown building Mr. Jones had built in 1914. As a teen, I attended concerts at the Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts. Otherwise, I knew little about Jesse Jones until I was hired in 1992 to write a biographical sketch about him for Houston Endowment, the philanthropic foundation established by Mr. Jones and his wife, Mary Gibbs Jones, in 1937. In addition to Mr. Jones’s success as Houston’s preeminent developer during the first half of the 20th century, I soon discovered he had initiated and managed many massive New Deal agencies that saved the nation’s financial system, helped millions of citizens, made money for the government and preserved capitalism. That’s when Jesse Jones’s contributions captivated me.

As luck would have it, while I was working on the biographical sketch, Houston Endowment was preparing to move from Mr. Jones’s 1907 Bankers Mortgage Building to the Chase Tower, Houston’s tallest skyscraper. Old safes and file cabinets crammed with documents and assorted papers needed organizing, and I was hired, along with architectural historian Barrie Scardino, to assemble an archive of what turned out to be a unique record of Houston’s early business history. While assembling the archive, I extracted graphically interesting documents for reproduction and inclusion in a permanent exhibition I was asked to curate and produce for the foundation’s new offices. The exhibition has since been duplicated and installed at Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business.

There was more to be done to renew and maintain knowledge about Mr. Jones. In the mid-’90s, people still lived who had worked with and known him, so I initiated an oral history program and interviewed family members, past employees, merchant Stanley Marcus, economist John Kenneth Galbraith and the children of President Woodrow Wilson’s doctor and closest associate, Admiral Cary Grayson, who was a close friend of the Joneses during World War I. Most of the more than 40 participants have since passed away.

Later, I took the information I had gathered over the years and served as executive producer and writer of Brother, Can You Spare a Billion? The Story of Jesse H. Jones, an Emmy award-winning documentary narrated by Walter Cronkite that was broadcast nationally on PBS. Because only the highlights of Jones’s remarkable story could fit into a one-hour documentary, Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones, Capitalism, and the Common Good followed.

Before I began my 22-year adventure with Jesse Jones, I wrote about political, environmental and social issues for magazines and newspapers, and I wrote and produced AIDS: Just Say Know, a concise and compelling educational play that was performed throughout greater Houston in theaters, community centers, churches and synagogues, and as in-service training for teachers and law enforcement officials, back when the disease was in its infancy and misinformation had instilled fear in many.

I received a good education in Houston’s public schools and at The University of Texas at Austin, where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business. After graduation I participated in my family’s business until I struck out on my own as a full-time writer. Coming from a family of civic-minded volunteers, I have served on the advisory boards of the American Red Cross Museum in Washington, D.C., and No More Victims, an advocacy agency for children whose parents are in prison. While still in high school, I formed a social group for special needs teenagers and young adults at the Jewish Community Center of Houston that continues to meet today. I currently serve on the advisory boards of AIDS Foundation Houston and Houston History magazine, as an honorary trustee of the Aubrey and Sylvia Farb Community Service Fund and as a member of Congregation Emanu El’s board of directors. I was honored to serve on Mayor Bill White’s task force on Houston’s history.

As a child, I spent many happy hours at my family’s store and explored and enjoyed Jesse Jones’s downtown as if it were my own backyard. My association with Jesse Jones thus did not begin in 1992; as was the case for so many Houstonians of my generation, it began practically at the time of my birth.

The author’s family’s first store in Houston—Nolen Jewelry (far left)—was in Jesse Jones's 1914 Wells Fargo Building at Capitol and Travis, now the site of Chase Tower, Houston’s tallest building.

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