Tonight, at 67 years old, David Jones will cross the Polk State commencement stage and begin a new life.
Behind him, he’ll leave a career based in materialism, in which everything hinged on closing the deal.
Before him lies a life in which all the money in the world can’t compare to the feel of a child’s hand in his.
It’s a life nearly 40 years in the making — and he can’t wait to finally get started.
“I’ve been through a whole lifetime of things, and it seemed like a never-ending journey,” Jones said. “Now that it’s here, it’s exhilaration.”
Decades ago, in his early 20’s, Jones wanted what most of us want — a nice house and car, good clothes, to take a trip now and then, money socked away in the bank.
At the time, he was working an entry-level job at a phone company, and he managed through connections at the company to find out how much his well-educated supervisor was making — just $17,000 a year.
“Even back then, I knew that was not enough,” he said. “I was pretty material at that time in my life, and I wanted to make more than that.”
Envisioning the big paycheck that would pay for the lifestyle he wanted so badly, he quit the phone company, enrolled at what is now Florida State College at Jacksonville, and worked three jobs while going to class. One job was selling shoes, another was at a juvenile detention center, the third was at a camp for disabled children. The latter was fulfilling in a way he’d never known before — how amazing it was to connect with children, to make them laugh, to bring a little joy to their lives.
The pace of work and school, however, was exhausting, so when he was offered a job selling cars — one job that would pay his bills and then some — he took it. Everything else, school, those kids, got left behind.
“At that point, I had just gotten my Associate in Arts and I was starting on a bachelor’s degree, but I wasn’t doing so good in school,” said Jones, who explained he was a student at Jacksonville University at the time, planning to study law or psychology.
“Going into the car business was a chance I was willing to take because I knew I could make good money.”
Within his third week on the job, Jones had made $1,000, more than his three previous jobs had earned him combined.
“I was hooked,” he said.
Sitting with Jones on a warm afternoon on the campus of Polk State Winter Haven, it’s easy to imagine him closing deals on the lot. He has an easy smile, a hearty laugh, a smooth, slightly Southern accent. He must have been the kind of salesman who made you feel unlike all the other buyers.
All that personality did indeed work in his favor, he said, helping him climb the car-dealership ladder, succeeding in jobs in every department, from maintenance to finance, and ultimately, management and ownership.
During the course of his career, he owned three dealerships in Florida and South Carolina. At one time, he was selling more than 2,000 cars a year. The money he’d dreamed of just kept coming.
But each of his dealerships followed a similar course — rise to profitable, even staggering success, then dismal decline in the face of recession.
“I’ve been rich and broke three times in the car business, and each time it was because of recession. You can’t stop them,” he said.
In 2008, he was working as the general manager of a local dealership, watching as the Great Recession scared away buyers, as credit all but disappeared, as vehicles sat idling in the sun.
With no end to the financial calamity in sight, Jones was laid off — and soon he was lost.
“I had never been out of work in my life. Three years later, I was still looking for a job. I had applied to more than 700 jobs and gotten nothing,” he said.
“It was during that time that I decided I had to change my life.”
The change he sought, it turned out, involved getting back to who he once was.
He enrolled at Polk State College in 2009, where he would finish the bachelor’s degree he had abandoned so many years earlier; tonight he graduates with his Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management.
He also began working with children again, this time for the YMCA of West Central Florida. In 2010, he earned the organization’s Volunteer of the Year award for coaching a youth basketball team.
“What is so neat about him is he’s very directive, but in a very motivational way,” said Theresa Sessions, former executive director of the YMCA of Winter Haven. “He related extremely well to the kids. He was playful but motivate them. He helped them look at what they were doing not only for themselves, but also for the team and help them learn bigger life lessons.”
Jones in 2008 also began substituting at area elementary schools, where he found his business background made him a natural at classroom management and his sense of humor helped him break through to the kids in his charge.
“I enjoy it immensely. I just love the connection with the kids. I am blessed that I can connect with the children,” he said. “My imagination is big and we laugh every day.”
Jones said he had his “ah-ha teaching” moment several months ago — and several times since then.
“I had a boy with a discipline problem. He was bull-headed. He wasn’t listening to me. We were wearing each other down and I thought he’d never want anything to do with me,” he said. “Then we were headed into the lunchroom one day, and all of a sudden there was this little hand in mine.
“It gives me a lot of satisfaction to know that I can change a kid, a life, that I can be a positive male figure.”
His work with children — he’s particularly fond of third-graders, he said, because they attain new maturity, but are still responsive to authority — has caught the attention of Sandhill Elementary School Assistant Principal Connie Loutzenhiser.
“He loves what he does. He’s passionate about it,” she said. “His classroom management is right there at the top and the students respect him. You can’t teach if the kids don’t respect you.”
Jones, so passionate about his new career path, will return to Polk State this summer to complete its Educator Preparation Institute, an accelerated teacher training program for those with non-education bachelor’s degrees.
Jones’ long path to his new career — but his persistence in following it — serves as inspiration to anyone who meets him, but especially his three daughters.
“He’s such an inspiration. Here I am 32 years old, a single parent to four children, and I’m starting back to college. He gives me such a boost of fresh air that I can do that,” said Elicia Jones, who works as a licensed practical nurse at Sandhill and will soon begin Polk State’s Nursing program.
“He’s been through so many battles. It was always his dream to go to school and be a teacher. Now he’s living his dream.”
Jones hopes to begin teaching full-time in the fall, but until then he’ll enjoy the start of this new chapter in his life. It’s been a long time coming and he’s not going to waste a moment of it.
“I know I’ve made the right choice to make this change. I’ve seen the money and I don’t need it. Teaching provides me with some of the best emotional pickups of my entire life,” he said.
Polk State will mark its 108th commencement at 6:30 p.m. on May 7 at The Lakeland Center. More than 930 students will graduate from the College this semester, having completed bachelor’s or associate’s degrees or a variety of workforce certificates.