ST. PETERSBURG — He's the most powerful Shriner in the world.
In the land of red fez, Jack Jones is admired and revered. His title is imperial potentate. His job is president and chief executive officer of Shriners International.
Fancy, yes. But get past that, and you'll find a 77-year-old Air Force vet who likes swimming, barbecues, and lives right here in an Isla del Sol condo.
This month, the other Shriners elected him to a one-year term as chairman of the board for Shriners Hospitals for Children and the international fraternity, which has 350,000 members.
Before that, he spent 30 years as Shriners' high-ranking imperial recorder, a corporate secretary gig.
He enters the top spot at a time of struggle and change: a bad economy and diminishing membership, difficult decisions to downsize some treatment centers and accept insurance money for the first time.
Jones, jovial and chipper, called the Times recently from an airport between Shriners stops to talk about his new position, life and the physics of the fez.
Where are you headed?
I'll be arriving in Wichita, Kan. They're having a Shriners football game for the hospital. A lot of states have them every year. Then, I'm going up to Montana to visit the oldest man in the world, who is also the oldest Shriner in the world. He's going to be 113 in September. I'm going to visit with him and present a plaque to him in appreciation. I want to see if I can find the secret to his longevity.
How tight is the race for high-rank Shriners positions?
When I ran for the recorder position, I did have competition. Oh, yeah. Another recorder from a temple up in Arkansas. I fortunately beat him by a 2-to-1 margin.
I beat the other person by a 7-to-1 margin.
What's your background?
I had a career in the Air Force. My last assignment was at MacDill Air Force Base. I've been in the Tampa area since 1969. I got sand in my shoes and decided to stay.
I'm in a wheelchair. In 1994, I got Guillain-Barre syndrome. It's debilitating. Another name for it is French polio. Back at one point, (doctors) asked my then-wife to call in the family, because they didn't think I was going to make it. I was paralyzed from the neck down. Now, I have a little bit of movement in my arms. I don't have a lot of grip in my hands. I can't stand or walk. But I travel all over working for Shriners, and I'm on the road a lot. I figure I'm not going to let something like that get me down.
That must give you compassion for kids at Shriners.
Absolutely. And sometimes when I go visit them in the hospital and some of them may be in wheelchairs, I challenge them to a race. The kids just love it. I've got to let them win, but sometimes I give them a pretty close race.
What are your hopes for the coming year?
I want to continue with the leadership of the organization. This past year was a very difficult year with the downturn of the economy. Representatives from all the temples voted on a lot of issues pertaining to running our hospitals. With the downturn in the market and plunge in our endowment fund, we're working to continue to prove that we can do what we need in our various hospitals to try to cut costs and still provide the outstanding and extremely great care to these children.
How does it feel to be the top Shriner on the planet?
With the experience I've had as the imperial recorder, I've been familiar with it. I've had the opportunity to observe our leaders in the past, those who I thought have been really outstanding, and utilize their methods.
But do you ever just think, "This is cool"?
Yes, I do. It is such a great honor, and for the representatives to elect me to this position, it is really tremendous. I'm so proud and happy. I'm going to do my very best this year, and I feel confident.
How often do you sport the fez?
Generally at all official functions. When we have our meetings and parades and banquets. I have a case for it.
Does it stay on your head?
They stay on quite well! They sure do. It's probably a lot better than you would think.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.