NISKAYUNA — Niskayuna High School lost one of its most beloved and respected teachers on November 8. Michael Jones (often referred to as Señor Jones) taught Spanish at the school for 23 years, but many say that he did much more for the school than teach.
He was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and doctors estimated that he would not live beyond the span of a few months.
“But his wish was to just keep teaching,” said Principal John Rickert.
Jones surprised his doctors and Niskayuna faculty by finishing out the last school year and carrying on into the current semester.
“It wasn’t until the first week in October when he decided to stop teaching because he said he wasn’t going to go in and do a job that was below his standards,” said Sean O’Connell, a fellow Niskayuna teacher and life-long friend of Jones.
The two grew up together in Utica and continued their friendship throughout high school and college. They were roommates in graduate school and both taught at Niskayuna High School for over 20 years.
“If you think of the word prodigy … that was Mike Jones,” O’Connell said.
Throughout their high school careers at Notre Dame in Utica, Jones proved that time and time again.
“In our junior year, we ended up having four or five different teachers for our chemistry class, for all different reasons. When we got to the end of the year, we realized that we were all in trouble because the Regents was coming up and we didn’t know anything,” O’Connell said.
Instead of giving up or panicking, Jones got his classmates together and taught them the chemistry curriculum at his home after school. And yes, O’Connell passed.
Jones had a brilliant mind, but his brightness wasn’t reserved only for the pages of a book or in his knowledge of language.
“He was a giant in the classroom. I’ve never seen anyone like him,” O’Connell said.
Jones was recognized for his passion in the classroom in 2013, when he was awarded the 10th annual Murray Award for Excellence in Education by the Niskayuna Community Foundation.
His ability to teach was on par with his ability to connect with students.
Rickert noted that well after Jones’ students had graduated, they would come back year after year to come visit him.
One such student is Gisela Perez, who graduated in 2008 but still kept in touch with Jones.
“I think it says so much about him as an educator that so many students stayed in touch with him long after graduating. I always looked forward to seeing him in class and if you can motivate high school students to make it to class, you’re doing something right,” Perez said.
“Class was always filled with laughter and he connected with every student on what they were interested in. He was more than a teacher – he was a friend to everyone, and as much as he will be missed, heaven is so lucky to have him,” Perez said.
Ryan Okonski, a 2011 graduate, called Jones an absolute legend.
“His care for his students went beyond learning names. He told me that he tried to reach each student, regardless of their interests, often by his favorite tool – laughter,” Okonski said.
Carrie Mattis, another of Jones’ students, said she has countless funny stories from his classes, although one sticks out to her in particular.
“The word ‘ointment’ made Señor Jones cringe and laugh so sometimes at the most random moment a student would say it. Once someone said it and he got laughing so hard that he went and hid behind the projection screen that pulled down for a full couple of minutes and he just laughed,” Mattis said.
These are just a few of many who are mourning the loss.
The Class of 2017 is in the midst of organizing a ceremony to honor Señor Jones.
A memorial mass will be held from 10 a.m. on Saturday, November 12 at St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church at 900 Madison Ave., Albany.
“Mike was actually a really selfless person, too. He never complained … and he was so organized, he laid out that he wanted people to donate to the Niskayuna Scholarship fund,” O’Connell said.
Instead of bringing flowers to his memorial service, Jones asked that people donate to the “NTA Scholarship Fund”, PO Box 9662, Niskayuna, N.Y. 12309.
The funding goes to Niskayuna students who need financial assistance to start college.
On November 9, students wore plaid to school, in support of Jones’ love of the pattern and in remembrance of him.