COLLEGE PARK – Chris Jones spends hours at his computer each day, working with equations aimed at a better helicopter model. He knows there are no guarantees his efforts will amount to anything that is ever used.
But if the pieces do come together for something tangible, it will be like Jones’ life — producing when it falls into place.
Jones is this year’s winner of the Student Leadership Award from U.S. Black Engineer magazine and the Council of Engineering Deans of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He was honored last month in Baltimore as part of the Black Engineer of the Year Awards.
At 31, Jones has earned master’s degrees in aerospace engineering and engineering management, reached the rank of captain in the Air Force, volunteered extensively, is an avid athlete and holds enough awards and honors to fill a couple of pages.
But Jones, who will finish his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland College Park in July, says he isn’t much of a planner. Things just happen.
“I don’t think a lot about big decisions,” he said. “I get to a point and I just pick something.”
He chose aerospace engineering because he was fascinated by airplanes and liked to draw. “When you get to a higher level in engineering and mathematics, it’s all art,” Jones said.
Stationed at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, from 1986 to 1991, he worked in a highly classified building analyzing foreign ballistic systems. He left with the Air Force Commendation Medal for outstanding performance.
Jones’ mother, Virginia, is her son’s archivist, saving trophies and preserving award certificates and scholarship notification letters in albums at the Havre de Grace home where he grew up.
“Chris is a child that is driven,” she said.
But Jones is something of a contradiction. Both his mother and girlfriend, Vernice Gibson, say he is also laid back.
“Sometimes I wonder if he’s alive,” Mrs. Jones said with a laugh.
Jones didn’t even plan to attend college until midway through high school. He said he doesn’t compete with anybody but himself.
“You should enjoy the process of what you’re doing and not worry about what other people are doing,” Jones said. “I’ve never been in a big hurry.”
When he enrolled at Georgia Tech in 1982 on a full four-year ROTC scholarship, he was the first of his siblings to attend a four-year school. He is the second-youngest of four children.
Mrs. Jones was not surprised by his academic achievements. It was she who pushed him to attend private middle and high schools. “I always knew he was a scholar,” she said.
Jones leaves behind both his intellectual and laid-back selves when he steps onto a basketball court or a football field. “If you’re going to play,” he asked, “why not win?”
Gibson mused about his intensity in athletics: “All day long he’s concentrating on minute details. I guess his balance is he plays hard.”
“Oh mercy, we have had injuries,” Mrs. Jones said. “He’s like a demon.”
He broke his right hand during a flag football game in December. The cast has come off, but pins remain, and he won’t play contact sports for a few more months.
“This is killing me,” Jones said, rapidly squeezing a ball to rebuild his strength while dreaming aloud about the University of Maryland’s new basketball league for people under six feet.
“I’d be like Shaq,” he said, for he stands just below the cut-off height and weighs about 200 pounds.
Jones also spends free time as a mentor and tutor for minority high school and university students.
Gibson recalled a first trip to Jones’ elementary school, where the principal thanked him profusely for previously visiting and speaking with students about the importance of education.
Jones explained: “If you’re black and you grew up with less resources, I think you want to go back and help. If people are going to talk about how kids are nothing but hoodlums, they’ve got to be willing to help do something about it.”
Jones said it is also important for students to see a black person as a teacher. He never had one himself.
He has been told he will be among about 30 black students to earn doctorates in engineering this year. “I wanted to be a statistic,” he said.
But Gibson is confident that Jones won’t lose sight of what’s important, as she believes highly educated people tend to do.
“Until his dying day, he will talk to Joe Blow on the street the same way he will to a Ph.D.,” she said. “He’s real.” On a recent evening, Jones seemed to prove her right. He walked across the University of Maryland campus, ready to spend another night in the glow of his computer screen, raised both arms and yelled with a grin: “Everybody’s my friend.” -30-