California (Pa.) interim president Jones has been trained for trouble
Geraldine Jones had no idea where her career would lead when she started teaching second grade in 1972.
“For sure I didn't think I would be a university president,” Jones said as she reflected on the journey that led her to become acting president of California University of Pennsylvania 18 months ago as a result of the dismissal of longtime President Angelo Armenti.
Jones was provost, the school's chief academic officer, for four years when it began to struggle under the burden of a $97 million debt amassed as Armenti literally rebuilt the drab, aging campus.
Jones, 62, inherited the debt and an $11.5 million budget deficit when she became acting president.
About 15 months later, at the 2013 fall faculty convocation, she announced that her team has reduced costs sufficiently to erase the deficit — and for the first time in five years the school had a slight surplus.
She rescinded a letter warning of looming layoffs.
“She stepped into a tough situation, but I just think she was the right person at the right time. I think she was training for this all of her life. Literally, she came up through the ranks,” said Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi, chairman of the school's council of trustees.
But for a brief stint as an elementary teacher, Jones of Brownsville spent her entire career in positions at the campus along the bank of the Monongahela River.
Her link to the school dates to 1968, when the youngwoman who had been pianist at Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church since age 14 traveled five miles down the road to then-California State College.
It was a dream come true for her father, Ronald “Bunny” Johns, a steelworker. As a standout high school football player, he was courted by colleges until his father's death forced him to forgo college.
“He took me to my first day of kindergarten, and he took me to my first day of college,” Jones said. “He was so proud when I became dean. I lost him 11 years ago, so he didn't get to see this.”
Professor Michael Slavin, president of California's faculty union, was among Armenti's chief critics. Jones has earned his respect.
“She has handled an extremely difficult set of circumstances with great grace. I believe she was able to do so because she was open to hearing both sides of the story,” Slavin said.
He said Jones sometimes is overly cautious, noting that she hesitated to fire a company hired to run the school's convocation center.
“We threw $2.5 million out the window last year because we gave them time. But she finally did get rid of them,” he said.
Slavin has known Jones for years.
“I was a freshman here when she was in the Miss Pennsylvania pageant. I watched her as I ran the lights for the show,” he said.
Jones said she entered California's pageant at the urging of the school's dean of women. The woman, who shopped at the A&P store where Jones worked as a clerk during college, broached the suggestion as Jones rang up her groceries.
“It was the farthest thing from my mind. I didn't even know how to apply makeup. But there was the possibility of scholarship money,” Jones said.
She was a runner-up in the 1970 state pageant and won a talent competition.
“That opened up many opportunities for me,” she said.
Doors were not always open for blacks in Western Pennsylvania in the 1960s. Jones recalled asking her father why they had to take their drinks out of the store rather than drink them at the counter.
His response, “You don't let those things deter you,” stuck with her.
Today, three students from her first second-grade class work at the university from which Jones and her two daughters graduated.
Her husband of 39 years, Jeffrey Jones, who retired from a career in information technology, was designated an official university volunteer as “the first gentleman.”
Photos of their 12-year-old granddaughter adorn the president's office, where a wall-to-wall slate blackboard, a relic from many years ago, pays homage to Jones' love of the classroom.
Last spring, at the urging of California's trustees, the board of governors of the State System of Higher Education changed Jones' title from acting to interim president.
“She is doing a good job, and we're comfortable,” said Aaron Walton, a California trustee who sits on the State System board.
Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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