Wilson Jones remembers the moment he was walking across a campus auditorium to tell his professor, Chuck Bimmerle, that he was going to drop out of the University of North Texas.
“I used to go to his office a lot, because he was really interesting,” Jones said. “I got to class late after changing tires at Briscoe tires. It was one of those big auditoriums. He met me halfway — and it was like he could almost read me. He said, ‘Let’s go get a Coke.’ I was saying to myself, like, ‘No, let’s not. Because I’m going drop out.’ But he could read me.”
After that soda, and after Bimmerle encouraged him to stay in college, Jones stayed the course. He graduated with a business degree and built a storied career as the CEO of Oshkosh Corp., which is known for producing specialty trucks and military vehicles. This week, the UNT G. Brint Ryan College of Business announced Jones’ gift of $5 million, an endowed gift that will build a new career center in the atrium of the business college.
Jones retired from Oshkosh last April. Over the years, Jones has shared a considerable part of his fortune with his alma mater — $10 million, if you include the most recent gift.
“Wilson Jones is a classic example of a student whose life was changed by being at UNT, and is always reaching back to help more students,” said Marilyn Wiley, the dean of the Ryan College of Business. “This is the example we hold up to our students. We tell them that someday, it will be your turn — once you establish yourself — to reach back and help students who are where you once were.”
Wiley said there are a lot of ways for alumni to “reach back” and make a contribution to students who often can’t just work their way through college like people could a few decades ago, when a UNT education cost $100 per semester. Now, most students need some combination of scholarships, jobs and financial aid to graduate with a college degree. When alumni get established, she said, they don’t have to write a check (though even a $25 check covers one week of meals for students). They can offer internships through the business school. They can offer expertise and mentorship.
“Wilson Jones is a beautiful example of that,” Wiley said.
Jones grew up in Denton to a working-class family and went to UNT when he said most people thought it was a college that graduated teachers and musicians. He graduated in 1985 with a business degree. Jones’ parents didn’t go to college, but Jones said his father “probably had more wisdom than anybody I know.” He grew up in church and saw that his parents tithed, a Christian practice of giving 10% of your income to the church each year. Giving was an intentional discipline in the Jones household, and it’s a practice his family continued.
“Being at UNT afforded me a lot of diversity,” Jones said. “At UNT, I got to meet a lot of people. For the first time I was in this diverse place. The school opened that up for me. There’s so much that happens to you in college, so many things that you learn that you don’t even really know you’re learning, you know? But then, working through a career, you look back and think. ‘That was foundational.’”
The career center will be the central spot for business school students to begin career counseling. Wiley expects that the college will hire three new employees to join four staffers already working in career counseling roles.
Jones said he’ll probably visit campus and the center routinely once it’s open, but he doesn’t plan to be too hands-on. For Jones, the rubber meets the road for students in class and then in internships.
“For me, the professors who really engaged with their students, those were the classes I did the best in,” he said. “The career center, it’s going to be staffed up with good counselors and people who understand how to get students connected on their career paths. We never know what people are going through. When it comes to college, you get out of it what you put into it. But there are people and instances along the way that make a difference, and I hope that’s what happens in the career center.
“I’ve been where these students are. I’ve been in that place of wanting to quit. Thinking I had to quit. It was that connection with Chuck [Bimmerle] that I finally, finally switched to ‘you know what, I’m going to do it — I’m going to stick this out.’ I’d like for students to be able to do that now.”
Jones said throughout his career, he met every college student working at Oshkosh as an intern. The company staffed 300 internships a year, and Jones said he had lunch with groups of them to share his story about struggling to get to graduation.
“If a student has dipped their toe into the business school, they should be able to have a conversation with someone like me,” Jones said. “They should be able to find out what’s it like to be in the insurance business. What’s it like to be in another business? We’ve all seen it happen. People get into something and find out its not their passion. If someone had sat down with me when … I was a sophomore or a junior, it would have kept me from taking a wrong move.”