MOUNT CARMEL - J. Kevin Jones' 26 years in public office will come to an end Jan. 6 when Philip "Bing" Cimino succeeds him as mayor of Mount Carmel Borough.

In addition to his 16 years (four terms) as Mount Carmel's chief executive, Jones also served 10 years on the Mount Carmel Area School Board.

Although Jones will stay active in the community, he does not expect his name will ever again appear on an election ballot. "I had a great time," he said, "but I never expected to hold on to being mayor forever."

In fact, Jones said he didn't really intend to run for a fourth term in 2009, but only did so at the behest of friends and supporters. "People talked me into it because of the upcoming borough 150th anniversary celebration (in 2012)," he explained.

Motivated by tower trouble

Jones' motivation to run for mayor for the first time in 1997 was directly related to how then-borough officials handled a problem at his church, First United Methodist, in 1996.

The church's tower, since repaired, was not in good condition at the time and Jones noted that while he was on vacation in the western U.S., he received an urgent phone call advising him the borough had condemned the church building. Upon his return, borough officials did not respond, he recalls, to requests for a meeting and didn't even return his phone calls.

It was New Year's Day 1997, he

recalls, when he finalized a decision to run for mayor that year. He revealed his decision to his wife, Donna, while the two were visiting his brother in Florida.

"I thought I would give it a valiant effort. If I didn't win, I knew there was no dishonor in losing," he said. Party registration was against him; Jones is a Republican and Democrats have a registration advantage, but he was heartened by the fact that, four years earlier, his friend, Warren Altomare, the Republican candidate in 1993, came close to winning.

The 1997 campaign was a "very dignified" one, Jones recalls. His Democratic opponent was longtime Mayor Larry Joyce. "I always had a lot of respect for him," he added.

Jones campaigned on his record of community involvement, and won. He won re-election handily three times - in 2001, 2005 and 2009. He had no opposition in 2001.

Borough's 'point person'

Jones' influence as mayor went beyond the limited statutory functions of the office (supervision of the police force and authority to break tie council votes or issue vetoes). He viewed the role of mayor as being "the most visible point person" for the borough. So he spent 90 percent of his time, he figures, responding to citizen inquiries and concerns.

In the age of instantaneous communication, Jones was able to respond to his constituents even when he wasn't in town. It was not unusual for him to handle issues "long distance" while he was on vacation; in fact, many of the people who called him didn't even realize he was hundreds of miles away at the time.

Through his 16 years, Jones could be counted on to attend any community function to which he was invited; he represented the borough at countless veterans, civic and Scouting events.

As mayor, Jones had the authority to officiate at weddings anywhere in the commonwealth. He accommodated nuptial requests whenever he could, officiating at about 200 wedding ceremonies during his tenure, both within the borough limits and out of town. This included a large variety of venues, including small private homes that were filled to the brim with attendees, upscale resorts and the middle of cornfields. Of course, a large number of these weddings (50 to 70, he estimates) were also performed at the gazebo in Mount Carmel's town park. He even presided at a wedding where the couple and their guests were dressed in medieval costumes.

"I slowed down with weddings in the past couple years," Jones said. "I recently had a few requests that I passed on to my brother (Magisterial District Judge Hugh A. Jones)."

Jones is particularly proud of the borough's improved efforts in code enforcement and the performance of the police department which, he notes, is more community-oriented than ever before. "There were three police chiefs during my time as mayor, and I worked well with all of them," he said.

Downtown revitalization has been, and continues to be, a challenge, Jones admits, but he is grateful for those dedicated merchants and Mount Carmel Downtown Inc., whose members work hard to make Oak Street more viable.

The town has definitely changed, Jones also agrees, but he thinks many people make the mistake of attributing all of Mount Carmel's problems to people who have moved here. "I can tell you that some of the problem people are 'home-grown,'" he remarked.

Early start in politics

Jones was appointed to the school board in 1982 to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Robert Litwin, and was elected to four-year terms in 1983 and 1987. He was a school board member at the age of 26 and board president at 29. While he was on the board, he also served as president of the board at the Northumberland County Area Vocational-Technical School and was Mount Carmel Area's representative for a time on the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit board of directors.

Even while attending college, Jones was actively involved in local political campaigns, including hard-fought races for the school board in the 1970s and Robert Varano's campaign for the Republican nomination for Northumberland County commissioner in 1975.

He served as chairman of the Mount Carmel Borough Republican Party from 1979 to 1982 and was chairman in 1980 of George H.W. Bush's primary campaign and the Reagan-Bush general election campaign in Northumberland County. Marvin Bush was a guest in his home while visiting Mount Carmel on behalf of his brother.

Asked to identify the political and community leaders who had the greatest influence on him or served as inspiration for his career in public service, Jones mentioned Bob Menapace, former school board member; Ned Stank, late county commissioner; Gene Welsh, present Coal Township commissioner; the late Karl Schu, also a former school director and downtown businessman; the late Andy Lesanski, longtime borough tax collector, and Jeff Kanezo, of Mount Carmel, who volunteered his services to develop and maintain the borough/mayor websites.

Staying involved

Jones taught in the Southern Columbia Area School District for 32 years, retiring in 2011. In addition to his classroom duties, he was a cross country and girls track coach for 30 years.

Jones' hope is that people will continue to get involved in community service, wherever and whenever they can. There are important community organizations, he pointed out, who may be within just a few years of dissolution because of a shortage of volunteers. Their absence will cause a void that won't be easily filled.

He vows to remain involved, especially with Mount Carmel Lions Club projects and with the Masons. As district deputy for the Masons, he is kept busy visiting lodges in Northumberland, Montour, Columbia and part of Luzerne counties and attending meetings in Philadelphia.

Jones is on the board of the Mount Carmel Cemetery, Family Medical and Sons of Union Veterans. He is chairman of the board of trustees at First United Methodist Church, and in fact donated his mayoral salary (total of $38,400 over 16 years) to the church.

Jones is delighted, he said, that Cimino is succeeding him as mayor. He is confident, he said, that Cimino will do an excellent job. He added that he has enjoyed working with the 14 or 15 council members whose terms of office have coincided with his.