Atlanta’s Kenley Jones reported historic events

TV newsman dies at 88
Kenley Jones (right) covering Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign in 1976. To the left is NBC cameraman Earl Wells. The Wells Crew was based in the Atlanta Bureau with Jones.

Credit: James “Butch” Townley

Credit: James “Butch” Townley

Kenley Jones (right) covering Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign in 1976. To the left is NBC cameraman Earl Wells. The Wells Crew was based in the Atlanta Bureau with Jones.

When Jason Jones was a teenager in the 1980s, he accompanied his journalist father Kenley Jones to Andalusia, Alabama, for the World Domino Tournament. He watched his father, an NBC news correspondent, interview people, figure out the best shots and create a story.

“It was great to see how he worked,” said Jason Jones. “He could always figure out who the right people to talk to were in order to provide a full story for the audience.”

Joe Kenley Jones spent decades finding and reporting stories from across the South and around the world for NBC television before retiring in the early 2000s. He died March 21 in Piedmont Hospital after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke. He was 88.

Jones was born in Greenville, South Carolina, to Joseph Clyde Jones and Mildred S. Jones and exhibited an independent streak early. “My dad was the kind of person who, when he wanted to do something, he made it happen,” said Jason Jones. “He had a fierce determination.”

While a student at Greenville High School, Kenley Jones and a friend hitchhiked to Washington state, where they worked in a pea cannery for a summer before hitchhiking home. Jones attended Furman University for two years and then transferred to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he graduated with a degree in speech communications.

He joined the U.S. Navy and served as an officer aboard a radar picket ship in the Pacific for three years before returning to Evanston and earning a master’s in journalism.

In 1964, Jones received a fellowship from CBS television to study at Columbia University, where he met Margaret McPherson. They married and moved to Atlanta for Jones’ job as a reporter-cameraman with Channel 2 WSB-TV, then an NBC affiliate.

“He grew and blossomed under news director Ray Moore, the station manager, who also mentored Tom Brokaw and John Palmer,” said Margaret Jones. “It was a great opportunity.”

Atlanta newsman John Pruitt joined WSB-TV in 1966 and met Jones, who was the top reporter. Jones was “nonpareil, he knew how to do everything. He was a serious guy and a great hard newsman who could still roam the state for WSB exploring the oddities and stories of rural Georgia,” Pruitt said. When Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered, “Kenley ended up with the story. He was the go-to guy.” His reporting also helped the station win a Georgia School Bell Award in 1968 for its education coverage.

The NBC network noticed Jones’ work and sent him to Vietnam in 1969 to cover the war. “It was his dream to join the network, and Vietnam was very important to him,” said Margaret Jones. “I remember watching him fly away and wondering if I would see him again.”

Lew Allison was the South Vietnam NBC bureau chief when Jones arrived. He Jones’ work was “excellent”— Jones reported on the infamous massacre of civilians by U.S. soldiers at a village near My Lai and later rode on a tank with the 1st Infantry Division during the invasion into Cambodia. A telex from a network executive deemed Jones’ coverage the finest combat footage he had ever seen, Allison said. For his reporting in Vietnam, Jones received the Overseas Press Club award.

In 1971, Jones became NBC’s roving correspondent in Asia, based in Singapore. His family —Margaret and their two children — joined him.

The next year, the Jones family moved to Georgia, and Kenley opened the first NBC News bureau in Atlanta, “in our garage,” said Jason Jones. “The bureau later moved to Colony Square, but it started as just one guy in his garage in unincorporated DeKalb County.”

Atlanta-based NBC News reporter Kenley Jones interviewing country music legend Roy Acuff.

Credit: James “Butch” Townley

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Credit: James “Butch” Townley

Jones roamed the South, reporting stories including Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, George Wallace’s recovery from an assassination attempt, and the fatal shooting of two students at Southern University in Baton Rouge. He was the first recipient of the Distinguished Broadcaster Award by the South Carolina Broadcasters Association.

Assignments also took Jones to Syria, Argentina, Nicaragua and Israel, among other countries.

He also roamed the U.S. on family vacations. Jason Jones remembers riding in a station wagon with his two sisters and his parents all the way to California and then to Montana to see Yellowstone National Park. With a camper in tow, the family drove to visit Margaret’s family in Pennsylvania and to Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Kenley was a baseball fan and an avid runner.

He loved music, and Jason Jones marveled at his father’s collection of thousands of vinyl albums, CDs, even reel-to-reel tapes, featuring music, from “old time” country to the Oscar Peterson Trio to classical music.

Jones left NBC in the early 2000s, but he returned occasionally to report a story or work on the weekends. Kenley and Margaret bought a house on Lake Hartwell, where they spent happy hours with their children and grandchildren. Kenley manned the grill and taught the entire family to water ski. Always a newsman, he read three newspapers every day and watched the evening news every evening.

In addition to his wife and son, Joe Kenley Jones is survived by brother Michael Keith Jones, daughters Stephanie L. Jones and Eleanor J. Remigailo and five grandchildren. An 11 a.m. memorial service will be held at Shallowford Presbyterian Church in Atlanta April 17. Memorial contributions may be made to The Salvation Army, Miracle Hill Ministries, or Shallowford Presbyterian Church.