Teresa Jones, the Mississippi farm girl and longtime public servant, was raised to be up before the sun and to work hard. She did for decades, as an attorney, longtime member of the Shelby County Schools board of education and most recently as judge in Division 1 Memphis Municipal Court.
She died Saturday, Jan. 2, of cancer. She was 61.
The accolades on social media were spontaneous and soulful.
Mayor Jim Strickland noted the honor it was to appoint her to the judgeship and that she was overwhelmingly elected in October 2019.
“A long time public servant, Judge Jones applied her talent as a Shelby County school board member, Chief City Prosecutor, trial attorney, public defender and adjunct professor.
“She was also a competitive tennis player. Teresa Jones was a wonderful person, a skilled lawyer and a great judge who served our city well. Fortunately, I had the opportunity earlier in the week, not knowing it would be my last, to express those exact feelings to her. My sincere condolences to her family and friends in their time of grief.”
Shelby County Schools Supt. Joris Ray said Ms. Jones was a leader with passion and integrity. “Your tenacity helped EQUITY and EXCELLENCE in education,” he tweeted, adding that the SCS was better “because of your public service.”
She worked 15 years as a trial attorney in the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. In 2013, she became the chief city prosecutor for the City Of Memphis Law Division.
After all the legal issues she saw that kept people from reaching their potential, she thought she could help keep them out of court if she could improve their education.
She was one of seven members appointed by the Shelby County Commission in 2011 to the 23-member unified board of education.
She ran the next year and won. In 2016, she ran unopposed.
She served District 2 continuously, several times as board chairwoman, until she stepped down in 2019 when she became municipal judge.
“Teresa was an amazing board member,” said Kevin Woods, who was also appointed by the County Commission to the unified board. “Teresa never cared about who got the credit as long as the work got done. That was one of the things I appreciated the most about her.
“She was just fine moving quietly when it came to shaping policy that brought better pay for employees, or increased opportunities for minorities and women-owned businesses. But she was just as willing to make the case very bluntly and without mincing words to do what was right. I always admired that about her,” Woods said.
“Teresa always saw things in black and white. Either it was good for students or it was not. Either it is good policy for employees or it is not,” he said.
When AT&T backed out of a $4 million contract in the summer of 2014 for Wi-Fi, Internet and telephone service, SCS’ choice was to pay $2 million more to get the same service from another vendor or start school without telephones.
“This should have been anticipated. This is not our first dance,” Jones said, serving notice to then superintendent Dorsey Hopson that it was time to get the procurement business in order, including penalties for companies that back out at the last minute.
She fought against the 7:15 a.m. school starts, not only because she’d heard from parents but because she had done her own research, turning up at places like Hamilton High as class was to start and finding empty halls.
She was appalled when district administrators said they had no working phone numbers for more than 25 percent of district families, tersely suggesting it was time to get serious about engaging families.
Billy Orgel, who was chairman of the transition board, remembers being on opposite sides of more than one board issue with Ms. Jones.
“We were adversaries during the transition, and by luck, in our third year on the board, we were seated next to each other and became fast friends,” Orgel said early Sunday.
“She was smart, witty and caring. I always said she was one of our best board members because she studied the issues and always tried to do what was best for our community.
“When she told me she wanted to be a judge, I lobbied on her behalf and supported her during her campaign. She was my colleague and friend, and I will miss her dearly,” he said.
Ms. Jones’ parents, Lottie and Horace Jones, raised their children in the 1960s and ’70s on the 100 acres of hill country they owned — and the family still owns — outside Holly Springs, Mississippi. She attended segregated schools until she started ninth grade at Byhalia High School in 1973.
“There was not overt racism at school. In the country where I grew up, everyone basically knew the place they had. It was a way of life,” Jones said in an interview in 2015. “You associated with certain people.”
Jim Crow meant there were no role models for children who might want to be lawyers, especially young girls.
“The only model I had was Perry Mason,” Ms. Jones said. “My motivation was my parents encouraging me every day, ‘You want to have a better life than you do now.’ Cotton fields can be a great motivator.”
She graduated from Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, and earned her law degree at Memphis State University.
She was an avid tennis player and won several American Tennis Association tournaments, including the women’s doubles in Indianapolis in July 2014.
As her public service commitments increased, she considered giving up her Monday night league bowling nights at Winchester Lanes, but not tennis.
“Tennis rejuvenates me,” Ms. Jones said during a lull one day in the city’s prosecutor’s office at 201 Poplar. “Other than the fact that I really love the game and camaraderie, I need the break. Hitting some balls helps with the stress.”
She once said the hard work her parents demanded, including that the children start chores at 4:30 a.m., formed her work ethic.
“It taught me not to take shortcuts. To this day I get up at 4 or 4:30,” she said.
Arrangements are incomplete at this time.