A True Original: Remembering Stacey Jones

WORDS Dwain Hebda
IMAGES courtesy of University of Arkansas-Fort Smith and the Jones family

Jan 1, 2023 | Featured, People

Wesley Hooks has a favorite Stacey Jones story, one that comes to mind with ease when asked to describe his late friend and mentor.

“Before I joined the university in 2000, Stacey was doing shows here in Fort Smith at the convention center,” Wesley says. “They began to renovate that space in late 1999 and it reopened in 2001. One of my first meetings with Stacey was when I worked for the convention center. He brought in the show Chicago and it was the first show after the renovation.

“That show was about to go off and we weren’t ready. They were still putting chairs in, dust was still in the air, it was cold. And Stacey Jones came in and he and I had a kind of discourse, if you will, because we weren’t ready, and he’s upset. So, later, when it’s time for the show, he comes back with all of the ambassadors and ushers, and they had on hard hats.”

At this Wesley laughs heartily, as if hearing the story for the first time.

“He was trying to make a statement, Stacey Jones fashion,” he says. “His sense of humor was one that you had to acquire a taste for. But he was a good guy all around.”

There’s probably no better tribute to Fort Smith’s fallen master showman than to be the subject of stories that makes people smile and laugh, even after he’s gone. Where Stacey Jones is concerned, such stories are many. Stacey, who died October 8, 2022, delivered enjoyment to audiences through the many Broadway shows, entertainers, and other performances he brought to Fort Smith via the University of Arkansas Fort Smith’s Season of Entertainment that enriched the community he called home, leaving an indelible mark along the way.

To the people who knew him best, this is especially true.

“We were married in ’76,” says Sheila Jones. “We dated for exactly six weeks to the day. Stacey knew I was Catholic, and we went to see the priest the Saturday after Thanksgiving. He told the priest, ‘Padre, we have to get married.’

“I’m going, ‘No, Father, we don’t have to get married.’ And he gives me that look of his like, shut up, you’re ruining my story. He looked at the priest again and said, ‘We have to get married. I’ve got my first real job and I need her for a tax deduction.’ You couldn’t get back at him. Even if you had a good one-liner, he’d one-up you every time.”

Born in Fort Smith, Stacey Allen Jones would serve the University of Arkansas Fort Smith, his alma mater, for nearly fifty years, ultimately retiring in September 2022, as associate vice chancellor of campus and community events.

During his tenure, he was a force in improving the local arts scene, spending the majority of his career connecting the educational institution to the wider community by bringing in concerts and other performances. The Season of Entertainment series that came to pass on his watch brought a long and distinguished list of Broadway productions and national touring acts to town.

Residents may be used to seeing such performances visit Fort Smith today, but when Stacey started, the idea of the National Opera Company, National Shakespeare Company or Broadway stalwarts playing the community – let alone at the behest of a community college – was seen by many as a pipe dream. And it probably was, except for Stacey’s unshakable determination to make it happen.

“He was able to not only envision what he wanted to accomplish, but he could communicate it well with others who would also buy into it and do the work behind the scenes to make this dream happen,” says Terisa Riley, UAFS chancellor. “Many leaders have a vision for something but can’t communicate it in a way that resonates with other people and it just doesn’t get off the ground. Stacey had a way of very passionately communicating what he wanted to accomplish so that other people wanted to be part of that accomplishment.”

At the same time, Sheila said, Stacey was pragmatic enough to know he couldn’t jam something down the community’s throat in the name of good taste. Whenever he was negotiating a show with edgy content, she says, his well-worn line was, “Do you have a Bible Belt version of that?”

“He had letters to the editor,” she says. “He brought in Hair and they wore body suits with underwear on and there were letters to the editor. So, he had to be reeeeeeally careful.

“Before Rent came, we had another show, and it was sold as a Russian opera. It was Rent, but it was in Russian! He brought in Jesus Christ Superstar and the next year he brought in The Rock, which is the history of rock and roll. Everybody thought it was going to be about St. Peter. People got up and walked out.”

Ashley Goodson, UAFS director of campus and community engagement, said in addition to a keen eye for entertainment, one of Stacey’s biggest gifts was his ability to connect with the people who supported his vision.

“I worked for him for nine years. Prior to that I was a student here from 2005 to 2009 so I knew him then,” she says. “He had a larger-than-life personality, never met a stranger, was very helpful to anyone and everyone who came by our office. His helpful nature is what drove his life’s work.”

Season of Entertainment alone would be enough to warrant a permanent memorial on campus – which, Terisa hinted cryptically, is likely coming soon – but it’s only one thing for which Stacey will be remembered. He was also widely regarded for his work in pageants, founding the Miss Westark program, a preliminary competition for the Miss Arkansas event and by extension, the Miss America system.

“Many UAFS students would not have been able to be in college but for the scholarships that come with these pageants,” Terisa says. “It’s much less about beauty, although they’re all beautiful. It’s also the talent they have, it’s the intelligence they have that gets to shine.

“I think many of the women who competed in the pageant would tell you they are better and stronger leaders as a result of starting right here and hearing Stacey Jones tell them ‘You can do this, you are worthy of competing against the top talents and minds for anything that you want to accomplish.’”

If there was anything Stacey loved more than the stage, it was his family – wife Sheila, daughters Stacie Kohles and Amanda Echols, son-in-law Aubrey Echols and four grandchildren. In them he leaves the most cherished and lasting legacy of all.

“There was a lot of growing up that took place at Westark, we felt like little ‘Westark rats,’” says younger daughter Amanda. “Dad did so much in the community. It was beautiful to sit back and see all these people that Dad touched. He had so many conversations that left an impact on so many people’s lives. He was in a position where that happened a lot.

“At the same time, I always knew I had Dad. Dad had my back; I had his support. I knew I had his attention fully. I find it amazing that he can have that impact on his family just as much as the people he met and had relationships with outside the house. I think that’s going to come to fruition one day through my children’s eyes, how he raised me on my morals and how he taught me to deal with the world. I’m trying to raise my boys how Dad would, and I hope my boys see all that he was in me.”

“The sacrifices he made for my sister and I are things I don’t think people know a lot about,” says Stacie. “He put me in private school from kindergarten all the way through ninth grade and I was really involved in competitive gymnastics as well. All that stuff was very expensive so there for a while, Dad was working at UAFS but he also worked third shift at a paper company, which I never knew until I was much older.

“If my sister and I were ever really upset or frustrated he would call us angel. He’d be like, ‘It’s OK, angel.’ That word wouldn’t come out a lot, but he knew when we needed to hear it. He was just very supportive in every aspect of our life. I think the biggest thing with him was, if you see something that needs to be done and you’re physically able to do it, you should do it. Those words have stuck with me. Every time I see something, and I really don’t feel like doing it, I hear Dad’s voice, ‘Just do it.’”

A memorial concert is being planned for spring 2023, details to be announced. If you wish to donate in Stacey’s memory, visit giving.uafs.edu, select Give Now, then More Giving Opportunities, and select Season of Entertainment Endowment. For a lineup of productions in this year’s Season of Entertainment, visit uafs.edu.

Do South Magazine

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