She landed in Iowa by chance.
Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated and there were riots in Kansas City, Missouri, where she lived with her parents.
Mae Colleen Thompson — who would later become Dr. M. Colleen Jones — and her girlfriends were worried about prom. Maybe prom would be canceled because of the curfews.
So they cut class and headed to see their counselor, Miss Dixon. Mae Colleen was a bit of a rabble-rouser. She was strong-willed. Ran for class president for four years until she won.
Miss Dixon had a visitor that day, the assistant basketball coach at the University of Iowa.
The girls could hear the two talking.
“Miss Dixon was giving him everything but hell about recruiting students to go to Iowa,” Jones said last week.
The counselor asked: Where were the scholarships for girls? You keep recruiting these boys; who are they dating up there?
By now, a few more girls had gathered outside the door, listening in, hearing Miss Dixon tell the coach she wouldn’t be handing over the basketball players’ transcripts until he went out to talk to them.
“He sheepishly came out and he talked to us a little bit,” said Jones. “One of my friends said, ‘What about those scholarships?’”
Their transcripts went into an envelope and left Central High School with the man from Iowa City. When the University of Iowa application paperwork arrived, Miss Dixon took out her purse and gave the girls a check for the fee and money for postage and sent them across the street to the post office.
A week later, a thin, white envelope appeared in the mail. Mae Colleen Thompson had been accepted on a full scholarship.
A happy accident, she calls it.
“If I hadn’t gone to Iowa, I wouldn’t have met Melvin.”
* * *
Jones retired from teaching in 2015.
She and Melvin arrived on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1996. A package deal.
Melvin as vice chancellor for business and finance.
Jones as a professor of management in the business college.
They immersed themselves in their work and building community. Melvin helped secure a campus contract with Pepsi — and $11 million in scholarships. He chaired the city’s United Way Campaign and pushed its goals high. He spoke at the annual MLK Breakfast and got a standing ovation.
Three years later, he died. He’d gone to Washington, D.C., to give a speech. He woke up in his hotel room feeling sick that Monday morning and, when he got to George Washington University Hospital, doctors prepped the 48-year-old for a heart catheterization. After the procedure, something went awry and doctors kept watch.
Jones was in Kansas City visiting her mother on Sept. 27, 1999. She had a day-long appointment at the beauty shop to have her braids done.
The landline rang after supper back at her mother’s house. It was Melvin’s sister.
“All I heard was wailing,“ Jones said. “And then she said, ‘He’s gone.’ It was that quick. I got on a plane the next day and we brought him to Memphis to bury him.”
After the shock and the grief, the widow established a foundation with the support of her husband’s family.
“We really knew it was a great life taken too soon, and we really wanted to do something to honor Melvin.”
The Melvin W. Jones Foundation funds a homework assistance program in Memphis, Tennessee, and another program in Atlanta for young people with alopecia. And it supports the Melvin Jones Scholar Community at UNL.
“It’s mostly a mentoring program,” Jones said. “We aren’t flush enough yet to provide scholarships.”
Instead, it offers connections in the community for minority students. The students live together in UNL's Abel Hall. Take part in community service, receive grants for study abroad, plane tickets for job interviews, graduation fees.
Jones is its hands-on, always-there leader.
“I look at it as a way to keep what Melvin stood for going,” she said. “What we both worked for. Melvin and I didn’t have any children of our own, but we have hundreds of children.”
The other day, she was looking at a photo of her husband with a group of young Black professionals, all of them mentored by Melvin. “None of them had doctoral degrees,” she said. “Now every one of them do.”
Eric Lee was in that photo.
He grew up in Air Park, went to Lincoln High, thought he was beating the odds when he earned his master’s degree.
Melvin was his mentor. He mentored other young men, too, treated them to dinner once a week, encouraged and counseled.
“Every now and then, this little lady would tag along with him,” Lee said. “He would say, ‘You guys think I’m really good, but my wife is incredible.’”
They were so enamored with Melvin they didn’t pay attention. And then he was gone and Colleen stood in his place.
“Since that time, what she has meant to me personally and professionally is hard to describe,” Lee said. “Professionally, I am Dr. Eric Lee because of Melvin and because of Colleen Jones, who mentored me and ushered me through that.”
She kept pushing him to get his Ph.D. She was the reason his son came to the university to play football, knowing her home was always open to him.
Lee lives outside Phoenix now, but he was still in Lincoln when the scholar community began at UNL. Back then, it was called the Urban Transition Community.
One day, he and Vaughn Robertson — another friend of Melvin’s — called Jones in her office at the College of Business Administration.
When Melvin was alive they called him “Doc” and they called Colleen “Dr. Mrs.” Now, she held a shortened title.
She picked up the phone. Doc, they said, we’re having a meeting about the Urban Transition Community, and we know you guys are doing well, but we keep having to explain what it was. Why don’t we call it the Melvin Jones Scholar Community?
Jones remembers that day.
“When I stopped crying, I said, I have to talk to the family. And after I called them on about a 20-person conference call and they stopped crying, we changed it.”
Melvin’s community thrived. A 2015 story in L Magazine shared the program’s history — the impact of his life, stories of students earning law degrees and heading to graduate school and quoted the woman who started it all.
“I get to know each and every one of the students and working with them makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something important.”
* * *
Mae Colleen started kindergarten when she was 4, shortly after Brown v. Board of Education.
That meant she could attend Greenwood Elementary School a few blocks away, in a class with both Black and white students.
Then she got sick and had to miss weeks of classes.
“When I got back to school, all of my classmates were colored kids,” Jones said. “The white kids had left.”
She thought: Where are my friends? Is this my class?
“I didn’t think too much about it until I was in junior high. Then I realized that’s what had been happening.”
Her education continued at all-Black schools in Kansas City, a diverse mix of incomes in the student body and an integrated teaching staff.
She loved school.
“I loved my teachers and my teachers loved me for the most part,” she said. “I was crestfallen if I couldn’t go to school.”
She was raised as an only child. Her mom had been married before she met her dad and had four children by the time she was 20. Jones would go and stay with those much-older siblings in Oklahoma on month-long summer vacations. She had a niece, just 2 years younger.
Sister-niece, she called her.
Her dad, Richard, worked construction for the company that helped build Country Club Plaza. Her mom, Willie Mae, toiled as a domestic and tended bar at night.
They were both readers. Newspapers. Reader’s Digest. Ebony and Jet.
“Anything that had words on it, my mom would pick up and my dad did, too.”
Her dad was an artist, who loved both art and music, and so did she.
Her mom loved road trips. In 1964, Mae Colleen told her mother she wanted to go with her on her next vacation and she wanted it to be a trip to the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York.
They didn’t have much money and they didn’t talk about college.
“College wasn’t in my future,” Jones said. “Not at all.”
But she did cross the street to play and study with the three Tucker girls.
“They were a big influence on me.” She remembers one of the sisters, Anita, talking about visiting colleges.
Going to school after school?
Her older siblings had started working after high school. One of her brothers joined the military.
But, the good student, seventh in her class, took to Iowa City, studying accounting and quantitative methods. She met Melvin her sophomore year when he came to eat dinner in the girls’ dorm.
“We formed a social circle,” she said. “Five girls and Melvin.” The two got to know each other and then like each other.
They were both involved in the activism of the late ‘60s on campus. Jones helped form a culture center, chaired Black History Week.
They dated through their undergraduate years and then she got a fellowship at the University of Southern California and he headed to law school at the University of Tennessee.
She figured that was it.
“I thought, this has been nice but we’re poor kids. Long-distance costs a lot and there are three time zones between us.”
But they wrote.
And they called once a week.
He came to visit her in Los Angeles.
When she was ready to graduate, she traveled to Atlanta for a job interview. Come visit me in Tennessee, Melvin said. He was an officer in the Black Law Student Association and Dr. Benjamin Hooks, president of the NAACP, was coming to speak at a meeting. You can come, too, he told her.
She waited at the hotel for him to pick her up.
He was running late. She was impatient.
“When he got there, he started talking about our relationship and I’m half-listening, and he pulled this box out of his pocket.”
They were married six months later. She found a job in Nashville.
The job interview, the bonus side trip to see her college beau.
A happy accident, she says.
* * *
The couple lived in Nashville and Knoxville. They returned to Iowa City, where Jones ran a scholarship program and Melvin was the city’s budget manager.
He caught the eyes of folks in Washington, D.C., and eventually became the director of finance and revenue for the District. Jones started work on her doctorate at George Washington University. Her fellowship included teaching.
“I absolutely loved it,” she says. “I decided I wanted to be a professor.”
Then Melvin was recruited to be vice president of business at Howard. Next was a job at Marquette, and a promised appointment for Jones that never happened.
Then UNL came calling.
“He said, ‘We’re a package deal. I’m not coming unless there’s a job for my wife.'”
The College of Business Administration had an opening.
They talked long and hard about the move. It was not the place they envisioned themselves. But Jones had intended to one day be a college president and, somewhere along the way that goal transferred to Melvin. A land-grant university would fit well on his resume.
They thought they’d stay seven or eight years.
“If things work out, we thought, we’ll have one more move,” she said. “Unfortunately, he died before any of that was more than a thought.”
* * *
She stayed after Melvin died.
She kept making connections.
“She is one of the finest human beings I know,” said Deane Finnegan. “She’s taught me a lot and mentored me through a lot.”
Finnegan met Jones through Melvin, who was on the Leadership Lincoln board, where she was executive director.
“I say, ‘I inherited her from Melvin,’” she said. “She always easily pushed people into Leadership Lincoln, especially people with diverse backgrounds and they were always great participants.”
She remembers watching her at a meeting to formulate a strategic plan and core values statement for the leadership organization.
“She just sat quietly and listened to everyone flailing around and then just brought it all together.”
She’s kind and wise, Finnegan said. Thoughtful with her words.
Tanya Cook feels likewise. The two met when Cook was Director of Urban Affairs for Gov. Mike Johanns. When Cook became a state senator, Jones opened her home as a “Lincoln crash pad.”
They are sisters in Alpha Kappa Alpha, Vice President Kamala Harris’ sorority.
Cook calls herself one of Jones’ super fans.
“She is an extremely generous woman with a lot of class. I feel lucky to know her.”
Jones is a woman of great accomplishment, said longtime friend Marthaellen Florence, but she doesn’t broadcast it.
“She is one of those kinds of people who is very unassuming that people forget she does such amazing things,” she said.
“She’s big-time,” Eric Lee said. “Both Colleen and Melvin. Her academic career. Where they have lived, what they have done. She slips in and she is the influencer in the room.”
* * *
She and Melvin always kept their home open to young people.
They’d “squirrel them away” in the basement so they could study, make sure they had something to eat.
“It was a joy and a highlight for Melvin and I both, mentoring or quasi-parenting young people,” she said. “Finding Black men and women, encouraging them to move forward, helping them stay on the straight-and-narrow both professionally and personally.”
One of them was a young man named Kenny Ford, a foster son they consider their son, now an assistant professor of finance at Wake Forest University.
“Following in Melvin’s footsteps in academia,” Jones says.
For her birthday this year, he gave her a keyboard. She sat posed beside it, hands folded just like they were in a childhood photo with her piano at home. Mae Colleen, the quiet but determined schoolgirl, still there in the face of Doc Jones.
Five years ago she had a kidney transplant after three years of dialysis.
She’s stayed in Lincoln all these years because of the friendships, her students, the Jones Scholars, the arts and music and sports that Lincoln offers.
She and Melvin had been “academic gypsies” so long, she said, she wanted to stay put for a while.
It’s been 25 years.
A grand life, Jones said. She has no complaints.
“My life was full of happy accidents,” she says. “I just hope I’m a happy accident for someone else.”
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Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @TheRealCLK