Gene Jones was a friend of mine. Of course, I was rather late getting into that barn, because everyone who knew Gene was his friend.
Since 1964, when he and his late wife Freddie moved to the corner of Milton Avenue and Lee Street, he was a fixture in the community. Gene and Freddie put down roots good and deep, raised their daughter Pam and served their church, Alpharetta First Baptist, as long as they lived.
Ken Morton eulogized Gene as “not only a good man but a great Christian man. Gene was a true servant.”
He was a leader in his church and 30 years a deacon. He helped build churches with the Georgia Baptist Builders, traveling once to Panama. He also served as a Gideon dedicated to distributing Bibles. He loved his wife Freddie and daughter Pam.
But I remember him best in his garden. He could never shake the red clay off his hands. I wrote about Gene and his garden, and I think it is still the best way I can remember him:
Aug. 05, 2009
Alpharetta, Ga. – Wander down Milton Avenue on a summer afternoon and you will probably see Gene Jones tending his garden, just as he has done every summer since 1965.
It will be immediately obvious that this is no sweetly smelling row of flower beds, but a good honest country vegetable garden with the corn high and the tomatoes juicy.
“Having a terrible time with beans this year. I don’t know why,” he says to a casual visitor. “Okra’s coming on good. One thing nearly everybody likes is okra.”
Something else nearly everybody likes is Gene Jones. He’s a gentle man, retired now from Lockheed. He has always been a country boy at heart.
“Yeah, I grew up on a small farm. We farmed with mules, no tractor,” he said. “I just got in the habit of keeping a garden.”
Jones was another of those young people who grew up to be “The Greatest Generation.” First came the Great Depression, then World War II. For a boy who had never gotten farther than Pickens and Cherokee counties, he went far.
“I got drafted right out of high school. I passed my 19th birthday in a rice paddy in the Philippines,” he said.
Jones then got the word that he had just “volunteered” to be trained how to use a flamethrower. It seems the Army was short of flamethrower operators because the Japanese didn’t like flamethrowers and showed their displeasure by making such soldiers special targets. Then he got a reprieve.
“I knew that was going to be my job for the invasion of Japan. I think that atom bomb saved my life,” Jones said.
Once back stateside in 1945, it didn’t take him long to marry his high school sweetheart, Freddie, and they had more than 50 years together.
“After I retired, we traveled all over, England, South America, Japan. And we did a lot of camping. Freddie loved to camp, and we went all over in our camper,” he said.
“I don’t think you will meet any better people than campers. Before you can set up next to somebody, you’re all acquainted.”
Gene and Freddie moved to Alpharetta in 1964. He looked out at the backyard, then walked out and marked off his garden.
“I plowed up my garden – borrowed a tractor to make it ready for the next year,” he said. “That’s where it’s been for 44 years in the same spot.”
Folks come by, and some sit a spell and talk. Some just buy their vegetables and go. But most do stay and chat a while. That is fine with Gene. He likes the society as much as anything.
About four years ago, neighbor Ralph Berry, a retired chief master sergeant at Dobbins Air Force Base, started to come around to help.
“He’s good with a hoe,” Jones said.
Jones and Berry decided to form a “corporation” with one as president and the other as CEO.
This year, Bob Hooks, a former assistant secretary of state, asked if he could become a member of the garden party as well.
“I told him me and Ralph would have a board meeting and let him know.”
Since all three are deacons at First Baptist Church of Alpharetta, it was a unanimous vote to let him come in.
“Bob is from Millen, Ga. They are known for their barbecue; the whole family are barbecue specialists. He and I and some other fellows would get together and cook for the church once a year. Bob’s got this big barbecue grill you pull like a trailer.” These days, they’ll get together at the Hardee’s for a breakfast of coffee and bacon biscuits. Or sometimes, they’ll take the biscuits back and sit under the tent while it is cool.
“I got a fig tree I planted behind us. Sometimes this lady comes down and gets some figs to make fig preserves. So I save her about a gallon to cook up. She brings some around and we put it on the biscuits. That’s mighty fine.”
Gene likes to sit outside under the shade of his tent with some fresh vegetables displayed on an old table with a plastic tablecloth. He has a set of scales and an old glass jar on the table. If he has to go run an errand or go to see somebody, he just leaves everything as it is.
The jar is his “honor system.” Folks know to just leave what they think is a fair price for his tomatoes, okra, beans, cantaloupes or watermelons.
“I never suspicioned anyone ever picked up something without paying for it in all the years I’ve had my garden,” he said.
It’s all the same to Gene. He likes growing things, and he likes watching people smile when they get something fresh-picked. So come when you can, but try to reserve some extra time. This is still Alpharetta, so you’ll have to visit a little.