WASHINGTON — It was the end of a long day for Wendell and Fredna Jones. Before March 25, the couple had been to Washington, D.C. only once: in 1959, not long after Wendell graduated from medical school. But on this Tuesday, the parents of Bassmaster Classic champion Alton Jones had enjoyed a private meeting with the President in the Oval Office, toured the Capitol and were winding down a leisurely dinner at Old Ebbitt Grill.
As waiters bussed the dessert plates, Wendell discoursed about his U.S. Air Force stint just after he and Fredna were married in 1952. A decade before Alton was born, the couple lived for two years in Las Vegas — and there, Wendell and Fredna said, astonishingly, every once in a while they'd get to watch nuclear weapons testing in the desert perhaps 75 miles away. When the ground quaked, they knew to wander into the yard and look at the cloud rising in the distance.
Sitting across from the Joneses, two journalists graduated slowly from disbelief to uproarious laughter with the Jones' matter-of-fact telling. From the head of the table, Alton overheard enough to know mischief was afoot. "Whatever they're telling you, it's not true," he joked, with a hint of unease.
Fredna plowed ahead. "If there's anything wrong with Alton," she said, half-jokingly, "now you know why."
The edge of tears'
Actually, radioactive or not, very little has been wrong with Alton Jones, at least since late February. He followed his Bassmaster Classic win — his first in 11 tries — with a strong start to the season; despite the usual champion's distractions, he's tied for 18th in the points after three Bassmaster Elite Series events. His son is less than a week from turning 16 and becoming eligible to joining him on tour as a co-angler. And then there was that singular congratulatory phone call...
There comes a time in every person's life when a realization settles in, that the time granted us will not be enough to experience all the world offers. Fredna and Wendell Jones have probably done more than most, but at 75 and 77, respectively, the math did not favor them ever getting an invitation to the President's pad. It was nothing they had any reason to expect.
Then their youngest child caught 49 pounds and 7 ounces of bass in three days on a lake in South Carolina, when none of the other 49 best anglers in the world could manage as much as 45 pounds. Alton found the fish, and the fish found his jigs, and lo, the most powerful man in the world was ringing Alton's cell phone and talking fishing and saying, Come on up and bring the folks.
That's how one self-described "stay-at-home grandma" and a retired pediatrician got to tour the White House with a Secret Service agent who lifted all the ropes that most tourists can only drag their fingers along. Here they were, up-close, admiring furniture that belonged to Jefferson and Lincoln, and when the President welcomed them into the Oval Office for nearly an hour, they saw the iconic portrait of George Washington that Dolly Madison spirited to safety when the British burned the White House, and the presidential desk, a gift from Britain, fashioned from the remains of a decommissioned naval vessel.
"Being able to touch those artifacts that were so meaningful in American history," Alton said later, "there were many times when I was moved to the edge of tears."
Even at the White House, Fredna made a point to remind Alton and his wife Jimmye Sue's three kids — Alton Jr., 15; Kristen, 13; and 10-year-old Jamie Sue — to absorb all they could.
Bush impressed the Joneses with his attention to them, and to those near him. "He made the comment to me that the people around him at any given time, he sees as a divine appointment," Alton said. When Alton handed the President a sealed letter from his big sister Luellen Smith, Bush put it in a pile on his desk. Six days later, when she arrived home from work, she had waiting for her a handwritten reply from Bush.
"He is a very humble person," Wendell Jones said, "and that seems incongruous that a man of that stature and power would be that humble. That's an unusual combination. He just stood there and very humbly said, 'It's not about me, it's about the office.'"
Added Fredna: "George made us feel like we did him a favor by coming. It just gave us a great feeling about living in the United States."
A capital day
Fredna and Wendell have that feeling every time they return home from overseas. For journeys of faith and medicine, they've visited Indonesia, Peru, Guatemala, Israel, India. It takes a certain kind of traveler to be able to compare the price of hotels in D.C. unfavorably against Hong Kong's, or to say, as Wendell Jones also can, "We thought Egypt was dirty until we went to Jakarta."
A couple of years ago, they accompanied their son to South Africa and Zimbabwe on a bass fishing trip, so they had seen where the humble vocation of fisherman could propel their boy. (One mild irony: it was Fredna's father who had taught Alton to fish. He had retired from the automobile finance business at about the time Alton was born, leaving him plenty of time to hang with his grandson. "He was sort of my daddy's baby," Fredna said.)
But it is one thing to travel abroad. It is entirely another to be welcomed in your own country as an honored guest of the state. After their White House visit, Bush received the King of Bahrain.
The Joneses lunched at the Capitol Hill Club and then, that afternoon, they and Women's Bassmaster Tour winner Judy Wong and their families toured the Capitol building (see the photo gallery linked to this page). Afterwards, Alton recorded a public service pitch for the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation. That was capped when the small crew ventured from a sidewalk onto the lawn southeast of the Capitol for a better shot. Jones got through a single take there before two police officers started across the grass. "We're about to get run off, Al," someone said. And that was a wrap.
A call you answer
"I'll tell you what I learned," Fredna said after the trip. "It just hit me that when the President of the United States invites you to come, you go."
The expense for three days in D.C. was considerable, they said, but for the parents and the son, the audience Bush granted them was akin to a spiritual experience. They all were reminded that there is another higher power to whom you also go when it calls.
"To Alton," Wendell said, "he felt awe that anybody would think enough of him to invite him. I think he was very humbled by it."
Added Fredna: "That's probably one of the highlights of his life, and probably always will be. He couldn't believe it was happening to him. I don't feel like he felt like he deserved it."
As for the two of them, she said, "It was something we will never, ever forget."