When the economy stumbled last fall, older Americans who remembered the Great Depression might have thought, “What this country needs is another Texan like Jesse Jones.” As chairman of President Roosevelt’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation from 1933 to 1939, Jones—a believer in capitalism
for the common good—helped many of the country’s banks, farms, and other businesses avoid economic ruin. FDR’s New Deal program “saved Capitalism in America,” writes historian James S. Olsen. “And Jesse Jones was the key player in that salvation.”

Remembered today for his philanthropy as well as his business acumen, Jones was born on a Tennessee tobacco farm in 1874. The family moved to Dallas in 1891, where Jesse completed an abbreviated formal education. He came to Houston in 1898 as executor of his wealthy uncle’s estate, and he soon oversaw lumberyards, timberland, and sawmills throughout East Texas and Louisiana.

Opening his own lumberyards and expanding into banking and construction, Jones built Houston’s then-tallest skyscrapers during the national economic crisis of 1907. He became publisher of the Houston Chronicle and convinced local bankers to help finance the Houston Ship Channel, raising half of the funds himself. By the time that World War I broke out, folks were affectionately calling Mr. Jones “Mr. Houston.”

During the war he served as Director of Military Relief for the American Red Cross, which dubbed him “Big Brother to four million men in khaki.” Returning to Houston after the war, he married Mary Gibbs of Mexia and continued building major edifices in Houston, Fort Worth, and New York. In 1928, he engineered the selection of Houston as the site of the National Democratic Convention.

With the Depression in full swing by 1931, Jones mobilized business leaders to prevent Houston banks from failing.
Called to Washington by presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, he became one
of the most powerful men in the country. As chairman of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Jones invested
$50 billion in programs to benefit the American people and worked to ensure that the money was wisely spent.

After World War II, during which he served as Secretary of Commerce, Jones returned to Texas to concentrate on his philanthropic organization, Houston Endowment. Projects funded by the agency included the San Jacinto Museum of History (“There could be no United States, as we know it, without San Jacinto,” Jones proclaimed), as well as numerous arts and environmental organizations, human services efforts, and thousands of college scholarships, including grants to scores of women and minority students.

“He never lost sight of the individual in the mass of humanity,” said Bishop A. Frank Smith at Jones’ funeral in 1956. “Though he rose to heights, he never lost the human touch.”

 

From the August 2010 issue
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