During the more than 30 years of service to Eastern North Carolina, Congressman Walter B. Jones Jr. was known for his conviction and integrity, whether standing by his belief in an issue or as an advocate for his constituents.
Jones, who had represented the 3rd Congressional District of North Carolina since 1995 and served in the state House of Representatives before that, died Feb. 10, his birthday, at the age of 76.
With his district home to several military installations, including Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, and Marine Corps Air Stations New River and Cherry Point, Jones was often referred to as a voice for military members and their families.
During the more than 10 years working to clear the name of Maj. Brooks Gruber and Lt. Col. John Brow after they were blamed for an Osprey crash that killed the two men and 17 other Marines aboard, Brooks Gruber’s wife Connie Gruber and Jones became close.
She and her daughter, Brooke Gruber, were given time and attention from the congressman through the years, both through their fight for justice and during other memorable occasions, including the Sunday in 2016 when Jones buried a Challenge Coin at Brooks Gruber’s grave for his daughter to dig up later with her own children.
“My daughter and I are deeply saddened because selfishly, we would like to keep him here — for this world has lost a true man of God, an all-round good person, and fearless leader,” Connie wrote in response to the news of Jones’ passing. “I am amazed at God’s glory in calling him home on his birthday, and I can only imagine the heavenly celebration.”
Every year since 2001, Jones introduced legislation to change the name of the Department of the Navy to the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps. Jones strongly believed that the nation’s Marines deserved recognition for their sacrifice.
Brig. Gen. Benjamin T. Watson, commanding general for Marine Corps Installations East – Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, said Jones understood the importance of military readiness and the military’s link to Eastern North Carolina.
“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Congressman Walter B. Jones, who faithfully served our military community in Congress for over 25 years,” Watson said in a statement. “Congressman Jones had a profound understanding of the inextricable link between North Carolina and our military installations, members and families. He took a personal interest in military construction budget requests to support the mission of our bases and air stations to provide state-of-the-art training areas and facilities in support of warfighting readiness. Never afraid to challenge the status quo, Congressman Jones was a strong and faithful advocate for our military personnel, their families and our veterans. His unwavering support will be remembered by our United States Marines and Sailors for years to come.”
Marc Finlayson, managing consultant for the Allies for Cherry Point’s Tomorrow, which works to sustain and grow Cherry Point, first met Jones in 1983 as a rookie reporter covering the state legislature and always knew him to be “kind and gracious.”
Finlayson said that when it came to Cherry Point, or any of the military installations, Jones saw their importance to more than just the national defense.
“We did not have a better supporter than Walter Jones,” he said. “He was always concerned about not just Cherry Point, but all military assets in Eastern North Carolina, and not only because of their importance to our national defense or as their part as an economic engine in the area, but also because he loved the Marines and their families.”
And during his work with Allies for Cherry Point’s Tomorrow, Finlayson said Jones was always available when they needed him and, likewise, he contacted them whenever he had questions.
“We lost a dear friend and he will be missed,” Finlayson said.
Onslow County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jack Bright said Jones always tried to do what was right and remembered him as someone who was good to work with.
“He always voted his conscience and always did what he thought was right,” Bright said.
One of the things Jones was especially known for was his work with veterans, Bright said. And for many veterans, Jones helped them obtain their benefits.
Bright’s father-in-law was one of the North Korea veterans helped by Jones. He was a Purple Heart recipient, but his records were lost at the hospital.
“When my wife got up with Walter Jones, it wasn’t very long before he had the records located and was able to get his disability,” Bright said.
Similar stories from other veterans, Bright said, are common as Jones worked hard to get veterans any benefits they earned and deserved after spending time in combat.
Pam Thomas, Onslow County Schools Board of Education chairman, said Jones was “a dear friend” as well as a staunch advocate for Onslow County and the local school system. Thomas said the military was at the heart of Jones’ actions and that he focused on military-impacted children, supporting programs and initiatives to help military children have a smooth transition into the public school system as well as ensured these children had access to available opportunities.
“I had a short conversation with him about partnerships between our schools and those of Camp Lejeune,” Thomas said. “He didn’t forget the conversation and made a tour of different schools to gather information. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family. We thank them so much for sharing him with us.”
A funeral is planned for 1:30 p.m. Thursday at St. Peter Catholic Church in Greenville. Survivors include his wife, Joe Anne, and a daughter, Ashley.