A Calling to Public Service: Harry Jones Receives UNC Distinguished Alumni Award

by Safa Sajadi

With the slight chill of autumn in the air and the sky Carolina blue, on October 12 faculty from across the University made their way to Memorial Hall to commemorate University Day—a day that commemorates the University’s past and celebrates its future. The date marks the laying of the cornerstone for Old East, the institution’s first building and the oldest state university building in the nation. This year the event was particularly meaningful to Carolina MPA, as Harry Louis Jones Sr. ’74 received the prestigious Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Since 1971, UNC has recognized Tar Heels who have made outstanding contributions to humanity through the Distinguished Alumni Awards. Another MPA alumnus and classmate of Harry Jones, Richard Knight, Jr., received this award in 1988. This year’s theme for University Day was innovation and entrepreneurship, and Jones was recognized for not only making a contribution to his field but for using innovation to get there.

Jones was recognized for his work as manager of Mecklenburg County, a position he has held since 2000. He administers the County’s annual budget of nearly $1.4 billion and oversees services delivered by 4,800 employees to 900,000 residents. His balanced scorecard plan has allowed the county to translate the county board’s policy into measurable goals and objectives. In 2006, Jones was elected a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, a non-partisan organization chartered by Congress to assist federal, state, and local governments in improving their effectiveness, efficiency, and accountability. Jones’ entire career has been devoted to public service. Before joining Mecklenburg County in 1991 as assistant manager, he held positions in Charlotte; Fayetteville; Raleigh; and Dallas, Texas.

While he was a student at Carolina, Jones was inducted into the Order of the Gold Fleece, Order of the Grail, and Society of Janus. Additionally, he is a former member of the University’s Board of Visitors and the 2009 recipient of the Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award, given annually at the UNC Black Alumni reunion.

On the eve of the awards ceremony, Jones’ 1974 classmates held a celebratory dinner. Kevin McLaughlin [check class year], one of the students who attended the dinner, said, “I was deeply inspired by Harry Jones’ humility. He is passionate about the work that he does, and the natural result has been many years of serving the public selflessly.”

Following the University Day festivities, a reception at the School of Government gave students and faculty the opportunity to meet Jones and also to hear stories from some who know him well. Gordon Whitaker, who nominated Jones for the Distinguished Alumni Award, described him as, “a true role model and as an individual who exemplifies the best in public service.”

Jones spoke about the importance of public service and acknowledged the opportunities he was given early in his career. “You never know who is watching you and the work you are doing,” he said, “and often you just need a chance to prove yourself.” He spoke of some of the difficulties currently faced by Mecklenburg County. During a period of unprecedented growth and innovation, the County, anchored by Charlotte, became a banking giant. This period of prosperity was short lived, however, as the economic decline impacted the County in unprecedented ways. Utilizing budgetary tools such as the balanced scorecard, Mecklenburg has been proactive in facing the economic storm, “but it’s an ongoing struggle,” says Jones.

Jones recounted that he had given up a lucrative career with Procter & Gamble because he heard the calling to public service. “There is nobility in being a public servant. You will not get rich, but you will be enriched by what you do.” Speaking to the students, he said, “There is no greater time than now to come into public service. With your work, we can create a greater nation.”

This article was originally written for the Fall 2010 issue of IMPACT.