Students strolling the tree-shaded campus barely glanced at the older silver-haired man in the blue blazer. They had no idea how much he meant to this place, how 40 years ago he made it all happen.
Dr. Milton Jones isn't a particularly modest man. But while so many others freely label him the "father'' of Pasco-Hernando Community College, he just grinned with those perfect white teeth and said, "That's your word. But yes, I was there at the start.''
Retired Circuit Judge Wayne Cobb, who was chairman of the board when he hired Jones, went a step further: "His genes are all over this college. He had the vision and the energy to get it going.''
Jones has been gone now for 18 years, retired but hardly idle. He seldom makes it back to the college and says the current president, Dr. Katherine Johnson, is doing a great job and "doesn't need me getting in the way.'' But he agreed to meet me at the New Port Richey campus this week to catch up and reflect on those important early days when our community welcomed higher education.
Jones signed on as the first president of the state's 28th and final community college on April 1, 1972. He called it a "college without walls.'' It had no buildings, no faculty or staff. Where to build the campus exposed the enmity between east and west Pasco, traditional power versus steamroller growth.
And still Jones, relentless in his mission, had classes up and running in Dade City, New Port Richey and Brooksville within four months of accepting the job. Of course, the classrooms were in rented space in banks and churches, schools and storefronts. Teachers drove the circuit to meet handfuls of students.
Jones, 78, is writing a book that includes much of that history, including a failed attempt by St. Petersburg Junior College to cut PHCC out of the fast-growing west Pasco area. He recalls another ill-advised attempt to locate the new college in Gower's Corner, where U.S. 41 and State Road 52 intersect — miles from the population centers.
Jones convinced his board of trustees to adopt a unique approach to serving such a wide and mostly rural area with three separate campuses. He then set about trying to find the funds, no easy task in a system where he had to compete with the other 27 presidents.
But Jones had a knack for getting along with private folks who had money to give. While the college began building the first campus in Dade City, he met millionaire rancher Alric Pottberg one day on his vast ranch east of New Port Richey. "He had his dog with him,'' Jones recalled. "We got in his truck and rode back into the wilds.''
Jones by then was already heavily invested in an alternate career as an officer in the National Guard. He brought a topographical map and impressed Pottberg with the way he could pinpoint their location far from civilization. He envisioned buildings and ballfields and a bridge over a large pond. Pottberg got so excited he donated 140 acres.
During his early career as a dean at St. Petersburg Junior College, Jones had thought what he might do if given the opportunity to design a campus. "First thing,'' he said, "would be to place buildings far enough from the main roads so there would be no distractions. Then I'd build a perimeter road around the campus.''
Pottberg's land reflects that vision. And while the campus has grown considerably over the years, Jones easily recognizes landmarks he described to Pottberg that day four decades ago. The first buildings opened in 1976, two years after Dade City. Brooksville soon followed on 100 acres the state donated.
It's hard to imagine now, after all the growth along the coast, that early plans had PHCC in one rural location. Today the college is modern, bustling and respected. A new Spring Hill campus opened in 2010 and another is planned to open next year in Wesley Chapel, the new growth hot spot.
After he retired, Jones remained active with the National Guard. He retired as a colonel. He also threw himself into service with Rotary International, directing efforts to help poor people on the Isle de La Gonave off the Haitian coast. In 2006-08, he served as a Rotary International director, one of only four in the United States and 11 worldwide. He traveled extensively.
Today his Rotary activities are confined to the Dade City club, which he joined in 1972 when visiting service clubs to talk up the new college. He and wife, Alice, live on 30 acres outside town, where he spends much of his time clearing dead orange trees.
His first college degree was in music and he remains proud of his deep silky voice. But while he once directed choirs and still keeps a database of singers he can call on for concerts, most of his singing now is from the pews at Sunday church services.
"Sometimes,'' he said, "I get little over-loud.''
He scaled back his activities five years ago after chest pains led doctors to diagnose a blockage in the main heart artery. He had a double bypass. Typically, he dedicated himself to recovery. He works out three times a week.
As he left the campus this week to head home, he stopped to admire some flowers.
"This place is beautiful,'' he said.