Rock-star grad reaches summit of life by giving back

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College of Engineering alumnus Ken Jones returns to Lincoln each year to talk with his scholarship recipients about what it takes to reach the top.

The boy’s journey to the top of the engineering world began on a mountain in Lincoln:

Mount Everest.

It was on a poster he’d taped to the wall of his small bedroom. It soared high in his life, decades ago, as he grew up in the blue-collar neighborhood of Havelock, in a home just 800 square feet.

Maybe that mountain inspired his young dreams at night. Maybe it inspired him to grow tall himself – to 6-foot-5 – and to work hard in sports and in class at Northeast High, his school in Havelock, and then as a chemical engineering major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (’68).

Maybe that mountain inspired all the risks he’d take and the innovations he’d make as an engineer and entrepreneur:

By age 23, during Vietnam, he’d risen to commander of the USS Flagstaff (PGH-1), a Navy Hydrofoil and the fastest combatant ship in the world at the time.
By 29, he’d risen to chief financial officer of Hills Bros. Coffee.
He founded Automated Call Processing Corp. in 1983, a company whose cutting-edge interactive phone message technology helped blaze the trail for United Airlines’ first automated reservation service. He sold the company to MCI.
He founded Ditech Communications in 1988 which eliminated echo on long-distance phone calls.
In 1993, he founded Globe Wireless, a maritime data network, from scratch. It eventually served 20 percent of the world’s commercial ships at sea.

And maybe that mountain reminded him, after reaching the top of the world, to turn around and help other people on their journeys, too.

Especially young people.

“Hi. I’m Ken Jones,” he said, extending his hand.  “It’s so great to see you again.”

He returned to UNL this past spring, as he does almost every spring, to talk to the recipients of his scholarship, and some of their parents, over ice cream and pop. He named the scholarship after his own hard-working parents. It’s officially the Lester V. and Helen R. Jones Scholarship. The four-year, full-ride scholarship goes to at least four students each year. More than 50 students have received it so far, all graduates of Lincoln’s Northeast High.

He shares a few stories from his life to show them how studying engineering – how learning to solve problems, to think – will give them the tools they need to succeed.

One student asked Jones how he developed the confidence to take so many risks.

“I don’t know how you develop confidence,” he said. “But if you try something, and it works, then you try again. And if it works again, pretty soon you’ll be there.”

Jones and his wife, Kim, live on an oceanfront ranch in Half Moon Bay, California (in a home they built with their own hands). His main goal each time he returns is to encourage the students to keep going forward in engineering. He once walked in their shoes. He remembers how hard it was, especially during those first two years when there’s so much calculus.

But try to hold on, he told them, because the clouds will clear.

“It’s going to be fun.”

And it’s going to be worth it, he told them, because engineers can make a difference in the world.

“I always had a poster in my room, when I was growing up. It was a picture of Mount Everest, which I always wanted to climb. It doesn’t look like I’m going to make it.”

But he smiled as he stood there, looking down the young faces … smiling back.

What a view.

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