How James 'March of Dimes' Jones' childhood promise turned into a lifetime commitment

FLORENCE, SC (WMBF) - He was an ordinary man with an extraordinary promise. As a trailblazer in the March of Dimes movement throughout the early 1900s, Florence native James Jones became a household name earning recognition from everyone from past Florence mayors to former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself.

WMBF News sat down with Jones' daughter, Ettaphine Scott, as she shared her father's remarkable story on how he became James 'March of Dimes' Jones and how the city plans to keep his legacy alive.

Today, the March of Dimes benefits those affected with birth defects, but when the movement was first founded it was to help combat polio.

During the early 1900s, polio, back then known as infantile paralysis, was an epidemic, almost exclusively in children. One of those who fell ill was Jones' childhood sweetheart, Kathy Smith.

"He promised her on her death bed, that if anything ever come about to help with polio, he wanted to have a part of it," Scott said.

It would be 14 years until Jones could work on his promise. He finally got the chance in 1938 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, also plagued by polio, started the March of Dimes campaign to combat the disease.

From then on, Jones took time from his job at the Atlantic Coastline railroad and crusaded through the streets of Florence, on his one-man campaign in the fight against the disease.

"Every year he never took off vacation for himself. He took his two weeks' vacation to walk the street or ride that bicycle and that pickle jar to raise money for March of Dimes," Scott said.

In the first year, Jones raised a little over $100. But each year his pickle jar grew fuller. Even though a vaccine for polio was created in 1955, Jones continued fundraising. Throughout his 30-year campaign, Jones raised over $200,000 for the March of Dimes movement.

"Even when he was in the hospital and he asked the doctor, could he put a jar… he said no I'm not going to the allow that. But then he would like send letters to people and that's how the donation came into the post office box," Scott said.

Little did Jones know the impact he would make. As word spread of his cause, so did his campaign. Jones was honored throughout Florence and even received a visit from FDR as he was passing through on the railroad Jones worked on.  When FDR died in 1945, Jones was sent to New York by the Florence community to put a flower on his grave.

Today, sculptor Alex Palkovich hopes to keep Jones' memory, and his impact, alive.

"People loved him. Always laughing, smiling, really a uniter of this city more than anyone," Palkovich said.

Palkovich said a statue of Jones is in the works and hopes to have it placed in downtown Florence. A sneak peak of the stature shows Jones with his signature look: holding his pickle jar. Palkovich said he plans to turn the jar into a safe for people to put money in so Jones can continue collect money for the March of Dimes.

"I think one need to know the history of the place. It's much easier to be inspired and do more things for the town when you know how many people have done it too," Palkovich said.

It's history that started as a promise, but has made an imprint on people long after Jones passed away in 1973. Even 45 years later, people still remember Jones with his contagious smile, his jacket, his bicycle and his pickle jar of a promise fulfilled.

The Florence March of Dimes walk is this Saturday. Every year Jones' family walks in honor of James 'March of Dimes' Jones.

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