Robert Jones hopes to spark love of reading in children
By Steve Huffman
Nine years ago, Robert Jones was about to lead his first ever story time at the Rowan County Public Library.
He was more than a tad nervous.
Jones is a lifelong bachelor, a nice guy with a sharp sense of humor. The thought of reading to a group 3- and 4-year-olds, however, was a bit daunting.
It was the summer of 2000 and Jones decided to tie his first attempt at storytelling into the Olympics that were being held that year in Sydney, Australia.
It was a masterful idea, Jones convinced himself.
He went quickly to work, gathering pictures of kangaroos and koala bears. He brought a globe and on the day of his storytelling pointed out the land down under to children sprawled before him.
His endeavor amounted to a Herculean effort. It flopped miserably.
“Oh, it was terrible,” Jones said last week, laughing as he recalled the fiasco. “Those kids had no idea what I was talking about.”
But Jones said that as soon as he finished, Sonja Beaver, at the time a co-worker, pulled him aside and reminded him of the importance of keeping it all in perspective.
“She said, ‘Robert, they are 3 year olds. They won’t know,'” Jones said.
Then Beaver delivered the best advice Jones ever received.
“She said, ‘Robert, the most important thing is to have fun with them,’ ” he said.
Jones took the words to heart and continues to follow them. He said he counts his blessings daily.
“I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life,” he said, “and this is by far the best. I stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I work with some of the best people. I look forward to coming to work.”
For the record, Jones’ title is “library associate.” He puts it in slightly more creative terms, describing himself as “a worker bee.”
Jones involves himself in a variety of tasks in the children’s room at the library’s main branch on Fisher Street. He stocks shelves and makes sure that new books arrive in pristine condition. Jones helps children and their parents find books and generally does whatever is asked of him.
But his favorite task is leading story times.
Jones reads to children of all ages and backgrounds. He leads story times in the library and travels to area elementary schools to try and impress upon the county’s youth the joy of a lifetime of reading.
Erika Kosin is youth services supervisor for the Rowan County Library system. She said each library branch has at least two employees who lead story times. They’re all good, Kosin said, and said Jones is no exception.
“He’s been doing this for a long time and he’s very theatrical,” Kosin said. “Robert is wonderful.”
Marian Lytle headed children’s services when Jones was transferred from the circulation department where he’d started his library career.
“I was blessed to have worked with a lot of amazing people at the library, and Robert was definitely one of my favorite,” Lytle said
She said many people don’t understand all that’s involved in reading to children, including the work that goes into presenting colorful, creative tales to school groups of 300 or more.
“Robert would do anything I asked, including singing,” Lytle said. “He’s an actor at heart. He’s a person of many talents.”
Jones, 53, is a graduate of Appalachian where he majored in sociology. Growing up in Salisbury, he worked summers at Cannon Mills. Following college graduation, he worked a variety of jobs ó a farmer and teacher of disabled children, included.
He has bartended and worked any number of other restaurant jobs in and around Salisbury.
“College for me wasn’t about getting a job,” Jones said. “Some people live to work. I work to live.”
He was living in Charlottesville, Va., making a living primarily as a bartender when he decided that maybe the time had come to find a more conventional means of employment.
Jones returned to Salisbury, took a look at the Post’s classified ads and saw a listing for a part-time position at the library. He applied and was hired.
On a recent weekday morning, as Jones led a story time for a group of 4-year-olds, he started by leading the children in an arm-stretching exercise.
“Hands on face, now put ’em in your lap,” Jones directed the children. “Reach to the sky, now quiet as can be.”
Then Jones paused to look at the children gathered before him.
“Hey, Levi,” he said, his years of reading to the little ones leaving him familiar with many. “How you doing?”
Jones said that on those rare occasions when he gets frustrated with his work, he takes a look at his left wrist where he wears a pair of metal bands. They came from wooden bobbins, cases of which he moved for hours on end while employed at Cannon Mills.
Jones has worn the bands almost constantly for decades.
“They remind me what a crappy job really is,” he said. “There are people who have it worse than me.”
Jones is the youngest of four boys born to Sid and Beverly Jones. Both his parents are deceased.
Jones has been involved in a number of productions of the St. Thomas Players and is president of Lee Street Theatre, an upstart organization about to start its second year of existence.
A few days ago, as Jones worked in his office, a 4-year-old girl wandered in. The door to the office that Jones shares with several other employees is always open.
“Mr. Robert,” the little girl began, speaking shyly, “I would like to take this home.”
Then she held up a Berenstain Bears book that had a flaw.
“What’s wrong with it, honey?” Jones asked, quickly ascertaining the damage involved a ripped page.
Jones got up, fetched some Scotch tape and returned to repair the book. In a moment, the book was (almost) as good as new and the child was on her way out with her mother and her sister.
Jones watched as they left, the day made better for everyone as a result of his having helped a child foster a love of reading.
Jones smiled as he watched the trio leave, softly calling, “Enjoy that book.”