Regnal Jones was a study coach, college counselor, financial adviser and cheerleader who encouraged thousands of minority men and women to become doctors, veterinarians, dentists, pharmacists and optometrists.
He would drive cross-country in the middle of the night to give pep talks to students who were depressed or thinking about dropping out of college. He cosigned loans to help them pay tuition and lent them his car to get to class.
There probably isn’t a state in the country without some medical professionals who are proteges of Mr. Jones, said John Bradley, an associate.
Mr. Jones, who completed high school in three years and earned his doctorate in molecular biology from the University of Chicago, addressed the young people he mentored as “daughter” and “son.”
They filled Rockefeller Chapel last Saturday for Mr. Jones’ funeral service. When a pastor asked anyone he’d ever helped to stand up, almost no one remained seated.
He died Jan. 9 of a heart attack at 75. In a final act of scientific education, he donated his body to the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois so medical students could learn from him.
“Totally selfless,” said Jerry Doyle, a vice provost at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Meeting him was “life-changing,” said Dr. Ronald Rembert, who credits Mr. Jones with his career in family medicine. “He was like a second father to me. … He instilled in you that you could achieve. I carry that with me to this day.”
Since 1986, Mr. Jones headed the Chicago Area Health and Medical Careers Program, a state-funded initiative that encourages health care careers for young African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans and Puerto Ricans. Headquartered at the Illinois Institute of Technology, it’s a collaboration that includes community groups and the state’s medical and dental schools. Starting in middle school, CAHMCP offers enrichment to kids interested in science and helps them through high school, college and advanced degrees. The youths can take summer science classes at colleges as well as courses to improve study habits. They get to work with research scientists and community health-screening programs.
“He would bring together elementary and middle-school students, high-school students and college students, graduate students, post-docs, doctors, PhDs and senior professionals within the health profession,” said Doyle. “A young person in middle school could see who they could be. And everyone else could see who they once were.”
“Meeting him helped me to see my dream was feasible,” said Rembert, who wanted to be a doctor ever since he watched TV’s “M*A*S*H” as a kid.
Mr. Jones gave him some good advice when he was studying for the Medical College Admission Tests. To improve his test-taking, he suggested Rembert study law school admission exams. “I ended up doing very well in the verbal reasoning section of the MCAT,” he said.
In the early ’90s, Mr. Jones urged Kimberly Jackson to consider becoming a doctor. She followed his advice after losing a pharmaceutical sales job in an economic downturn more than a decade later. The 46-year-old mother of two entered medical school in 2012.
“Sometimes I’m tired, but I get in bed and study. Sometimes I’m sleepy, but I get up and have a cup of coffee and study,” she said. When naysayers told her she was too old, “He said, ‘Daughter, people that tell you you’re too old to do something are old people who have never done anything.’”
Mr. Jones often started work at 5 a.m. and didn’t get home until 7 or 8 p.m. And he traveled about 100,000 miles a year, making visits to CAHMCP students around the country, Bradley said.
“He wanted to help young people of color be medical professionals so they could return to their communities and provide quality medical care,” said David Baker, IIT vice president of external affairs.
Mr. Jones grew up in La Grange and what used to be called Argo, now part of southwest suburban Summit. There, he befriended Emmett Till, whose family had Argo roots. The murder of 14-year-old Till, beaten and shot by racists in Mississippi, helped propel the civil rights movement.
At the University of Chicago, Mr. Jones earned three science degrees. He taught science at Loyola University and Chicago State University and worked for the city Department of Public Health before joining CAHMCP.
He could fix cars, rehab homes and cook tasty oxtails and sauerkraut, said his daughter, Kim Jones-Snipe.
Once, he saved a woman from a sexual assault. He heard her screams in a Chicago subway restroom and ran in to find her being attacked. He pulled the man off her and held him until police arrived. Mr. Jones returned home with blood on his suit. “He said he rammed [the assailant’s] head on that subway tile,” she said.
He met a beauty named Angela when they both worked at the main city Post Office.
“He was a young suburbanite from La Grange, driving a black MG,” she said. “I was just a girl from the projects. I lived in Ida B. Wells.”
While at the University of Chicago, he’d drop in at her home. He’d stay so long “he would miss his train back to La Grange, so he’d go back to the lab and sleep on a bench.” They were married 53 years and also had a son, Jason, and two grandchildren. Mr. Jones is also survived by a sister, Shirley Williams.
CAHMCP has assisted about 6,500 students since it started 30 years ago, said Bradley, associate director of the program. An estimated 2,500 are practicing in the health care field. Alums are expected to mentor others in turn. Because of the state budget impasse, he said, there has been no funding for CAHMCP since Dec. 31.