Monday profile: At 82, professor emeritus Bill Jones still helping MSU crank out engineers

 

Bill Jones, a professor emeritus for mechanical engineering at Mississippi State University, tends flowers in the garden behind his Greensboro Street home in Starkville where he and his wife, Carol, have lived for the past 25 years. At 82, Bill still teaches three senior-level courses at MSU and is involved with multiple ministries through Starkville First United Methodist Church.

Bill Jones, a professor emeritus for mechanical engineering at Mississippi State University, tends flowers in the garden behind his Greensboro Street home in Starkville where he and his wife, Carol, have lived for the past 25 years. At 82, Bill still teaches three senior-level courses at MSU and is involved with multiple ministries through Starkville First United Methodist Church. Photo by: Zack Plair/Dispatch Staff

 

Bill Jones looks through a stack of final exams he recently graded for the 70 students he taught this semester. It took him 15 hours over three days to complete the task.

Bill Jones looks through a stack of final exams he recently graded for the 70 students he taught this semester. It took him 15 hours over three days to complete the task. "It's like reading 'War and Peace' in a weekend," he said.
Photo by: Zack Plair/Dispatch Staff

 

 

Zack Plair

 

 

A stack of papers sits on a desk beside Bill Jones' laptop in his Greensboro Street home in Starkville. 

 

The final exams for his 70 mechanical engineering students at Mississippi State University represent, by Jones' estimate, about 15 hours of meticulous grading work he knocked out between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. 

 

"It's like reading 'War and Peace' in a weekend," Jones said. "... But it shows there's justice in life. If I didn't give it, I wouldn't have to grade it." 

 

At 82, the professor emeritus at MSU is equal to that task and more. His secret, or at least one of them, according to his wife, Carol, is doing 40 pushups first thing every morning. 

 

Bill taught three courses this semester -- machine design, mechanical systems design and variations and controls -- which are all senior-level. Technically retired from the university since 2002, he's grown accustomed to the regular "why do you still do it?" from friends, family and fellow faculty members. 

 

"Well, I've just about got it all figured out," comes his jovial response.  

 

Beyond the classroom, Bill volunteers through his church, Starkville First United Methodist, as part of its handyman and prison ministries, and he's no stranger to grabbing a hammer at local Habitat for Humanity home sites. 

 

These things Bill also sums up simply. 

 

"It's a lot of fun," he says. 

 

More seriously, Bill admits he considers the things he does his spiritual purpose, as much as anything. 

 

"God put us in charge of taking care of his creation, so we're supposed to be busy doing positive things (toward that end)," he said. "People have different gifts. Teaching and engineering are things that I can do." 

 

Bill earned his bachelor's from Mississippi State in 1958, later adding a master's from the University of Wisconsin and a doctorate from Purdue. He interned with NASA and worked stints as an engineer for Allis-Chalmers in Milwaukee and Caterpillar in Peoria, Illinois, before retuning to Starkville in 1976 as a mechanical engineering professor. His real-world experience still helps convert prospective engineers to professionals. 

 

"I just really enjoy the students and getting them to master the fundamentals of engineering," he said. "The students appreciate the problems I give them from the things I've done." 

 

Some of the "problems" Bill presents his students come from his "office full of broken stuff," Carol said. People often bring Bill material from broken tools or machines to show his students (to see if they can figure out why it broke, presumably), and it's turned into quite a collection. 

 

"We'll even stop to pick up broken pieces of metal on the side of the road because he thinks it will be a good example for his students," Carol said. 

 

Over the years, Bill also has helped his students build cars for them to race against other universities -- at places as far-flung as Louisiana, Arizona and the Ford Proving Grounds in Michigan. 

 

"He never raced the cars himself, because he wanted it to be very clear these were the students' cars," Carol said. "But there was always excitement about getting a car ready." 

 

Despite any excitement, stress or tediousness involved in Bill's continued daily grind, his reputation is as much marked by his unflappable temperament as it is by any of his considerable expertise. In short, Carol noted, Bill is so slow to anger, it's hard to recall if he's ever quite made it that far. 

 

"One of his coworkers once told me, 'If he ever gets mad, call me. I want to see it,'" Carol said.

 

Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.

 

 

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