Ray Jones stumbled across a marked up degree completion plan for Liberty University.
His wife, Jill, who died in a car crash months earlier, had already filled in the courses he completed at other colleges.
“Even from beyond, she is still telling me what to do,” Jones said with a smile.
After losing his wife and son, Nicholas, in a car crash last August, Jones left his construction job and enrolled in Liberty’s online program with sights set on teaching.
He and his wife often talked about him going back to college and teaching.
“She’d want me to be happy, whether it was teaching or digging ditches,” Jones said.
Jill Jones and her son, Nicholas “Niko,” died when a drunk driver ran a red light and plowed into their car on the way home from visiting family in Illinois last August.
A Roanoke County jury found the driver, Paul Harris, guilty of two counts of aggravated involuntary manslaughter, one count of maiming while driving under the influence and one count driving under the influence. The jury recommended a prison sentence of 38 years Friday.
Over the last nine months, Jones and his son, Raymond, a senior at Liberty Christian Academy, have often talked about the crash and the loss of Jill and Niko.
“The hardest part is, as a human, you are trying to wrap your mind around the ‘why,’” Jones said.
‘Explosion of life’
A wide smile stretches across Jones’ face when he talks about his “better half.”
“She made me a better dad, a better husband,” Jones, who met his wife at a Christian youth center in Illinois, said. “Jill’s my better half.”
Not one to waste the day, Jill Jones spent time each morning in prayer before preparing for a busy load of tasks.
“She was more driven and motivated than anyone I’ve ever known,” Jones said. “She was such an explosion of life.”
A beloved professor in Liberty’s education department, Jill Jones encouraged others with kind words and an eagerness to help.
“She was just such a bright star and person,” her husband said. “She loved life.”
‘It was all upside for him’
Niko Jones became fascinated with medicine after hearing about his father’s recovery from a fall in 1992.
“He liked the idea of literally being able to fix a bone,” Ray Jones said. “He loved the idea of fixing people.”
Niko Jones also enjoyed comedy. Ray and Raymond often hear a joke and think of him.
“He could quote jokes and crack anybody up,” his father said.
Niko was also a gifted student.
“He loved learning, but he didn’t want you to know he was that smart,” Ray Jones said. “It was all upside for him. He was just 16 years old. He had nothing but potential ahead of him.”
‘Some days it makes you smile’
Soon after losing his wife and son, Ray Jones began pulling photos out of albums and framing them. He enlarged old family photos, lining his basement stairway and bedroom with snapshots.
“There were just so many great times,” Jones said. “I thought, ‘how am I going to remember all the great times?’”
Jones points to a photo of the four riding horses on Easter Sunday.
“Some days it kills you and some days it makes you smile,” Jones said.
‘The pain doesn’t go away’
The family sat through Harris’ four-day jury trial in Roanoke County this week.
Jurors reached a guilty verdict and recommended a sentence Friday afternoon.
“I don’t feel any better that the trial is over,” Jones said. “The pain doesn’t go away. It doesn’t end. It just changes.”
Jones finds peace in knowing the legal process is over.
“Now I’m not sitting there thinking this guy could get out in a few months,” Jones said. “There’s not a sentence long enough to satisfy me, but it came close.”
‘There is that greater purpose’
Jones struggles with understanding the reasons for the Lord taking his wife and son.
He often thinks about meeting them in Heaven.
“In my mind, I don’t know why, but Niko comes over, (to me) and it’s that awesome thing,” Jones said, fighting back tears. “In my mind’s eye, that’s how it plays out and then I get to understand. That’s what you hold hope for.”
The family received an outpouring of love from the university, school and church.
“I still get cards from people I don’t know,” Jones said, adding emails and Facebook messages continue to pour in.
Some of Jill Jones’ fifth grade students from Illinois wrote the family.
“They were saying, ‘Twenty years ago, she impacted my life,’” Jones said. “You get those little glimpses of the impact their lives had. There is that greater purpose.”
‘We are going to survive this’
Jones said the family’s faith in God has strengthened them.
“It’s easy to know the answers,” Jones said. “It’s hard when that’s tested and you have to practice the answers. It’s a lot tougher to practice them when you have had to endure what we have.”
Father and son share a similar path. Raymond plans to enroll in Liberty and hopes to play football this fall. His dad will continue online classes in hopes of teaching high school history or business classes and coaching sports.
Ray and Raymond view the rest of life the same way.
“I’d love to have a 20-year plan,” Jones said. “I know in the last year, my plan didn’t go as anticipated.”
They have pulled together, linked by love, tragedy and hope.
“Sometimes the difference between saying something and doing it is so vast,” Jones said. “You make the decision you are going to survive this, but it’s how you implement that decision. For us, it’s just saying, ‘We don’t know how it turns out, but we are going to survive this.’”