Father John E. “Jack” Jones may be Louisville’s least-known hero.
He’d certainly never refer to himself that way; and the notion that people might not know of him would likely suit the priest just fine.
He was not a man who sought limelight, notoriety or fame.
Yet Father Jack Jones, who died June 22 at age 83, was the best kind of hero. The simple kind. The kind who sees a problem and doesn’t wait for someone else to solve it.
He was the kind of hero who works largely in obscurity, quietly going about the business of righting a wrong. Then when the right time came, his humble nature allowed him to step aside and let others pick up the guidon and expand what he’d started.
Father Jones has left in his wake one of this community’s most remarkable legacies — the Dare to Care Food Bank.
It is a gift to our community and its people, a gift that grew directly from a horrific tragedy, and from Father Jones’ efforts to make certain the tragedy wasn’t repeated.
The story of Dare to Care’s birth is an oft-told tale locally.
Back in 1969, a nine-year-old boy named Bobby Ellis was found dead on Thanksgiving eve. He’d starved to death in the city’s West End and when he was found on Eddy Alley, he weighed just 20 pounds.
It was a horrible and dramatic event that shook the community to its core. And it moved Father Jones to act.
He took to his telephone — and to his pickup truck — and encouraged people, stores, restaurants, churches, you name it, to contribute to a food bank that he started at St. John Church, where he was pastor.
In the church basement he and other volunteers sorted the donated food, then delivered it to other charities and food pantries throughout the city.
The slogan for the effort was “dare to care.” Two years later the slogan officially became an entity, and now those words are etched into the fabric of this community.
“Jack was really moved by the death of that child,” said Father Pat Delahanty, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. “He wasn’t going to let that happen again. And because of what he did, thousands and thousands of people have benefitted. It’s mind-boggling, really, and an example of the difference one person can make in the lives of many.”
Stan Siegwald is director of policy and planning for Dare to Care, and he sees every day the effect — the legacy — of Father Jones’ efforts.
“He saw something wrong, something horrible,” Siegwald said, “and then he worked to make it right. If you wrote this story in a script and tried to sell it today, people would reject it — they’d say it was unbelievable. But it was real and Father Jack’s response to it is an inspiration to us all.”
The priest demonstrated, Siegwald said, the impact we can all have “just by acting on our passions for good.”
“When life presents us with an opportunity, as it did to Father Jack, we need the wisdom to know when to grab that opportunity and move it forward,” he explained. “Father Jack also taught us that when we start something good, often there will be other people who are trying to do the same thing, and our efforts can be joined together.”
Father Jones no doubt never imagined that his work would produce something as grand — and as important to our community — as the current Dare to Care Food Bank. In the past year the charity has provided food to nearly 200,000 people. The food bank itself rests in a 55,000-square-foot building, and the food Dare to Care collects is distributed by a fleet of a dozen trucks.
Lord knows the help they provide is needed as much or more today as it was in 1969. These days in the neighborhood surrounding The Record office, for instance, one could toss a stone and watch it come to rest at the feet of someone who most likely needs help.
Father Jones lived long enough to see what his efforts created — though he most often saw that creation from afar. He spent the autumn of his years on a farm in Simpsonville, Ky., away from the city, and, for the most part, away from lots of people.
“He visited us once,” Siegwald recalled. “He came to offer a prayer on our 35th anniversary. He didn’t want to be honored; that wasn’t his way. His way was to take action — he saw a problem and had the courage to act on it; to do what he thought needed to be done.”
For that he needs to be remembered. “There are Bobby Ellis stories everywhere,” Siegwald said. “What Father Jack taught us is to get started on a solution, on fixing what’s wrong. He showed us that we shouldn’t be intimidated by what other people think, and we shouldn’t intimidate ourselves by thinking we can never do enough to help.”
Father Jones did what he could — and what he could do turned out to be something very special.