WHO'S WHO - JESSE H. JONES
Some will remember him for his real estate holdings and the skyscrapers that dot the Houston horizon. Some will remember him for his politics. Either way, there is no arguing that during the Roosevelt administration, Jesse H. Jones was the second most powerful man in America.
New Deal proponent and right-hand man to President Roosevelt, Jones was born in 1874 in Tennessee. His mother died when he was 6 years old. Raised by a widowed aunt, Jones settled in Dallas to gain an education and to work at his uncle’s lumber-yards. After learning the tricks of the trade, Jones started his own Houston lumberyard and dubbed it the South Texas Lumberyard Company.
While in Houston, Jones tried his hand at real estate, commercial building, and banking, becoming the largest developer in town. His projects expanded to Dallas, Fort Worth, and New York. Eventually he sold off most of his lumber interests in order to channel his efforts into real estate, banking, and the publishing industry, with his acquisition of the Houston Chronicle.
World War I began Jones’ political career. Under President Woodrow Wilson he became director general of military relief for the American Red Cross until 1919. He was appointed to the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), set up to combat the effects of the Depression. President Wilson would later refer to Jones as a "great American" who gave nearly a century to public service.
President Roosevelt named Jones chairman of the RFC in 1933. He rescued many a railroad, bank, and factory from disaster, insisting on rock-solid collateral before certifying a federal loan. Bombarded by liberals for his strong-arm tactics, yet admired by Democrats and Republicans alike, Jones lent $50 billion of government money "without a breath of scandal." Much of that money went toward construction of plants for emergency wartime production. With Jones at the helm, the RFC became the most prolific agency in Roosevelt’s administration.
But Jones did not forget his roots. He used the agency to facilitate expansion of Texas industry from oil and agriculture to steel and chemicals. In 1956. Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks said, "Texas and the nation will long remember him as a business statesman—developing successful industry and serving government in high office."
In 1939, Jones accepted Roosevelt’s offer to head the Federal Loan Agency (FLA). He remained chief of the FLA during the war years, supervising transactions of more than 30 agencies that received federal money. After serving as Secretary of Commerce, Jones returned to Houston in 1945 to resume both his business and philanthropic ventures. Houston Endowment, established by Jones in 1937, became the nation’s 15th largest by 1979.
Jesse Jones passed away in 1956 after a brief illness. Many political figures grieved his passing. Lyndon B. Johnson recalled that Jones "caught the early vision of our state and he helped in the building of it. He was a part of it, and of us. All his labors were bent toward building a better Texas and a better America. We will miss his very genuine contribution to the country."