Jones remembered for his dedication
If few people outside of the Pennsylvania Game Commission knew who Dennis Jones was, that was OK with him.
Up until the time he was stricken with cancer a year ago, Jones played a prominent role in just about every major wildlife management effort undertaken in the state over the last quarter century. He climbed 100-foot tall trees in Saskatchewan to bring eaglets back to Pennsylvania, ventured out onto window ledges at Pittsburgh's Gulf Tower to band peregrine falcons, helped trap and transfer elk into new areas, monitored osprey nests, set up check stations for a hunter-movement study, and taught college students to trap white-tailed deer for a project examining the impact of antler restrictions.
He was also "the single most important person in re-establishing black bears in southwestern Pennsylvania," said his long-time friend, Gary Alt, the biologist who ran the bear program before moving to deer.
He never once asked to be thanked.
"The guy was like something out of 'Mission: Impossible.' You could give him an assignment that no one else could do, and he would get it done," Alt said. "And he never wanted a pat on the back for it. He would have been embarrassed by it. He was content to stay behind the scenes.
"As a result, he never got his due reward. But that never mattered to him."
Jones died Saturday at age 64. He had retired from the commission in 1999 with 30 years service, the last 28 of them managing game lands for wildlife habitat in the southwestern corner of the state.
Those who knew him best, though, say his legacy is far richer than that.
"The great thing about Denny, he had the biggest heart for wildlife than anyone I've ever run into," said Vern Ross, executive director of the Game Commission. "And everything Denny did, he did for the right reasons. There was no selfishness in this man. None. And no ego, either."
"Throughout his whole career, he just exemplified what a game warden should be," said Dick Belding, another close friend who spent more than 25 years working with Jones from the Game Commission's Ligonier office. "He was honest. And he had a tremendous work ethic. He would work all day, then go home and have another project to do there in the evening, on his own time, that he wasn't getting paid to do. But that's the kind of guy he was."
Indeed, his stepdaughter, Susan Wasser, remembers growing up in a house where fawns, owls and other critters in need of rehabilitation were a constant.
"Every time I opened up the freezer we had frozen mice in there to feed one of the screech owls he was trying to release back into the wild. When the bird got healthier and had to learn how to hunt, we'd have live mice, too," Wauser said. "It was a lot of fun, a lot of fun. He just couldn't stand not being involved with animals."
A Marine Corps veteran and an Eagle Scout, Jones was remarkable for living by the motto "Be prepared," said his friends. He built the traps students use to capture deer, fixed commission vehicles when they broke in the field and developed the pouches wildlife officers carry as standard equipment when tranquilizing bears.
"I always said that if I ever got stuck somewhere, Dennis is the guy I wanted with me," said Harry Richards, retired director of the Game Commission's southwest region office and a friend to Jones. "He was someone who always knew what he was doing and how to do it."
"The harder things got, the more likely he was to move to the front," Alt agreed. "And he never gave up. The tougher it got, the more he smiled. He was my hero, really."
Family and friends will gather at 11 a.m. Saturday at Calvary United Methodist Church in his hometown of Ligonier to remember Jones. Representatives from Pittsburgh's Marine Corps League and the Boy Scouts will be there, along with a large contingent of Game Commission staff.
That service will show just how revered and loved Jones really was, even if he never asked to be told, said Game Commissioner Roxane Palone, of Greene County.
"Denny's one of those people where I think we're going to find out directly how many lives he really touched," she said.
"He wore three uniforms in his life, for Eagle Scout, the Marines and the Game Commission. He brought honesty and integrity to every one," Belding said. "You couldn't do a story on a better guy."