It can be hard these days to find a parking space outside a certain brick and tan split-level home on Grayson Avenue in Northwest Roanoke.
By the hundreds, young and middle-aged men and women have been parking their cars and walking somberly inside. From far away, others are phoning in.
Wednesday morning, former Miss Virginia Tai Collins called from Mexico. There were earlier calls from an international businessman in Russia and his brother in California. And an overnight letter from a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel in Pakistan.
They’re paying last respects to a man who influenced them deeply back when they were young, and who’s much on their minds today.
His name is James Earl Jones, 65, and he’s dying of cancer. Hospice workers are trying keep him as comfortable as possible. He can’t talk much, but he can listen to goodbyes.
He’s better known as Coach Jones, the guy who took young students, some with troubled lives, and turned them into star athletes and successful adults.
Among them are former NBA player George Lynch. And former NCAA champion sprinter Jamie Price. A third is All-American sprinter Arminta Crosby. And there is Shannon Taylor, who went on to play football at UVa and in the NFL. There are many, many more.
Over a four-decade career in Roanoke City schools, Jones taught physical education and health and coached track, football and basketball — at James Monroe, Woodrow Wilson and Lucy Addison junior highs, and at Patrick Henry High School.
Jones’ teaching and coaching career began right after he graduated from Virginia State in 1970. Even though he retired from teaching in 2003, he was still coaching runners at Patrick Henry through the spring of 2010. By then, he was so ill his legs couldn’t support him — so he did it from a lawn chair alongside the track.
Jones wasn’t in the news much. He mostly let the athletes have the spotlight. But he made a huge difference in their lives, both on the field and off it. That’s the source of the outpouring happening now.
“I’d say probably James Earl has touched as many students’ lives as anybody who’s ever worked in Roanoke city public schools,” said Tim Bane, a former Patrick Henry athletic trainer and administrator who’s now principal at Lord Botetourt High School.
“He didn’t talk down to kids. The genuine thing about James is, he would listen. He’s an ordained minister, you know. He had the gift of speech, but a great gift of listening.”
Jamie Price, who’s now track and field coach at Northside High, said Jones instilled confidence. It gave Price an edge that helped him win state championships at the high school level, a scholarship to the University of South Carolina and a national collegiate championship.
“It was never, ‘I think,’ or ‘maybe.’ It was always, ‘Let’s do this,’ and ‘We can win,’ ” Price said. “He was a five-star general in that respect.”
But Jones also was also much more, said Price, whose father was gravely ill during his high school years.
“Not only did he coach me — he was my daddy. He cut my hair, he’d feed me. He took me fishing.”
I heard a similar story from former PH star sprinter Arminta Crosby-Smith. Thanks to Jones’ guidance, she won a full scholarship to George Mason University, where she was an All-American. She now lives in Washington, D.C., where she’s a successful businesswoman, wife and mom.
But her life in Roanoke’s housing projects was very different.
“My family was chaos,” said Crosby-Smith, who visited Jones last weekend. “To sum it up, Coach Jones saved my life as far as the path I was headed down as a young person . . . He never hesitated to bring me to his house,” to avoid a bad scene at hers.
Brandon Keith, a 2008 Patrick Henry graduate and track star who’s now a junior at Virginia Tech, said Jones was a taskmaster who pushed students hard, but did it with love and caring.
Jones never played favorites.
“He didn’t care what color you were, what neighborhood you lived in, who your parents were,” Keith said. “Even for the kids who weren’t that athletic, he got the best out of everybody. . . He wanted all kids to be successful.”
Jones is a Roanoke native, the second of six children, and an ordained minister. He’s been married to his wife Billie Jean for 42 years. She’s a special education teacher’s aide at Patrick Henry High.
They were childhood sweethearts when she was 10 and he was 13. She called their marriage “a life of bliss and love.”
Jones was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. A little more than a week, ago doctors decided there was little else they could do. They released him from the hospital and sent home for hospice care.
One of his three daughters, Jamelle Jones-Hughley, said the parade of people, phone calls, cards and letters has been nearly nonstop since then.
“It’s been an outpouring of love, a sweet, sweet spirit,” she said.
Wednesday, the family had some visitors who weren’t former students of Coach Jones. They were City Councilwoman Anita Price, Roanoke School Board member Mae Huff and Chairman David Carson.
The trio had a message for Jones, and they delivered it as he lay in his bed, surrounded by family.
It’s an idea that sprang from dozens of Jones proteges, that’s been pushed in flurries of behind-the-scenes phone calls and emails in recent days.
They’re going to name the Patrick Henry High School track after Coach Jones.
It will take a while, but “the process has started,” Carson told me.
“I can’t think of anyone who’s more befitting an honor like this,” Price said.
James Earl Jones is deserving of that, at the least.