It was a long process to get the gym named after the beloved teacher and it took getting the school board to change rules to do it. Bob Jones died just a few days before learning the Auburn High gym would carry his name.
It had to be a secret. That was the plan, the only way something like this could happen.
Everyone involved, everyone who knew Bob Jones, knew any leak would ruin their carefully coordinated plans. Jones, the longtime Auburn High School football coach, teacher and athletic director, could not know his colleagues intended to honor his service and selflessness in a very public way. They wanted to name the school’s gym after him, and they wanted to reveal the announcement at a pep assembly on Friday because Bob Jones loved pep assemblies like he loved so many things: His three children, his wife of 35 years, the Green Bay Packers, Auburn High and the many students he influenced over the years.
And absolutely, without question it had to remain a secret. “Mainly because he would have hated it,” said his son, Kyle Jones.
Not that Jones wouldn’t have appreciated it. It just would have been about him, and he never liked anything to be about himself. “We knew he might have put the kibosh on the big ceremony and the big show because that just wasn’t his way,” Kyle said.
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But an obstacle threatened the plans from the start. The school district had a policy against naming buildings after people who were still alive, and even though a nearly four-year fight with pancreatic cancer had zapped his strength and energy, Bob Jones was most certainly alive.
Hundreds knew about the plans to rename the gym because hundreds wrote letters to the school board, posted in the group’s secret Facebook page and talked about how much Jones meant to students, the school and the community.
“Many things in Auburn have changed since I moved on from Auburn High School,” wrote Jodie Carothers-Reinfeld, class of 1993, “but I am comforted to know that Bob Jones, and his love of Auburn and its kids, has not.”
“It is rare that a community is blessed with a single individual who enters unannounced, quietly and sincerely gives so much of himself, touches so many lives in so many ways yet asks for nothing in return,” wrote Murray Johnson, a retired teacher and coach. “If one student many decades from now asks, ‘Who is this Bob Jones this gym is named after,’ the Auburn community will have a wonderful story to tell about a quiet man who cared so much.”
“I just was hired as the AD for Mill Creek Middle School,” wrote Waylon Tulip, class of 1999, in a text to Bob that he shared on Facebook. “I owe so much to you and wanted to say thank you for inspiring me to be who I am today and who I have yet to become. Love ya Bob.”
“I only had one MMA fight, but unbeknownst to me Coach Jones showed up to show support,” wrote Seth Dawson, class of 2004. “It was one of the greatest surprises of my life.”
Jones spent 36 years at Auburn. They called him Mr. Auburn. He showed his dimples all the time, and sometimes even grinned while lecturing students. He believed every moment was a teachable one.
But in October 2013, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Doctors started chemotherapy. He kept working, kept asking the same question that defined him, always: How could he help others?
In July, he walked down the aisle at his son Kyle’s wedding. Everyone still hoped chemo would defeat Jones’ cancer. In September, doctors changed his treatment. In January, Kyle’s mom called and told him, “Your dad is going to go off chemo. He’s going on hospice care. We’re just going to enjoy the time we have because it’s not working.”
Not long after, Kent Rodseth, a longtime friend and colleague, had a similar call with Jones. While driving in a neighborhood where he and Jones once lived, Rodseth had an idea. He wanted to name the Auburn gym after Jones, a small way to show him how much he meant not only to Rodseth but to the community. Rodseth just had no idea how to do something like that.
He made calls and quickly bumped into the school district’s policy. He connected with Beth Torgerson, whose husband had played for Jones, and together they went to the next school board meeting. Still no.
So Torgerson messaged Michelle Sterling, an Auburn alumna: “I may need to join forces with you to make (stuff) happen for Bob Jones. He is not doing well and Rodseth is trying to get the gym named after him. The district has a policy against it. … You in?”
Sterling started the secret Facebook page, which quickly attracted 2,000 people. More than 100 letters poured in. People from around the state, even people from out of the state, called on Jones’ behalf. For six weeks, Rodseth, Sterling and Torgerson attended every school board meeting and presented their case, each time getting a little closer.
Finally, on Feb. 27, they decided this would likely be their final pitch. If the school board said no, they would respect the decision, just as Jones would have wanted. They wanted to do this the right way. That day, though, they received good news.
The school board voted yes.
Rodseth worried, “Did we wait too long? Did this happen too late?”
Jones filled his time with people he loved, even as the cancer took its toll. He hugged his family more and traveled to places of his childhood. He started journaling and ended entries with a hashtag: “Take care of others. You will never regret it. #standupforsomething.”
The Sumner School District hosted a dinner auction and raised close to $20,000 to help pay for his medical expenses. Jones was there and cried. His former players also raised money, and co-workers got Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to send a signed football.
“All of this for me?” Jones always asked.
What is a legacy? It’s what happened at Auburn High on Friday. A crowded gym, hundreds and hundreds of people, most of them crying. Former and current students, community members, old coaching buddies and coaching rivals, colleagues, friends and the mayor.
They were all there for one man, Bob Jones, who died last Sunday at the age of 60, the ceremony’s secret and his immense legacy preserved inside the gym named in his honor.