Shirley Jones has won an Academy Award, been nominated for Emmy awards and enjoyed a long, successful career in music and film, but she does have one regret: She never earned a college degree.
So it was easy for Jones, a Smithton native, to get happy when Washington & Jefferson College's president, Dr. Tori Haring-Smith, called to inform her the college was conferring upon her an honorary doctor of fine arts degree at W&J's 206th annual commencement today.
"I'm thrilled. It means so much to me," said Jones. "This is my home state, Washington's practically my hometown, and I've had a lot of relatives graduate from W&J. It's a very special place, and I believe my father went there for a year. It's doubly wonderful because I have a lot of relatives coming and my cousin's granddaughter, Julie Hogan, is graduating from W&J."
Jones said she planned on becoming a veterinarian after she graduated from South Huntington High School in Westmoreland County. She borrowed $160 from her father – who, with his wife, Marjorie, ran the Jones Brewery that produces Stoney's Beer – and headed to New York City, intending to return later that summer after she ran out of money.
That never happened. Jones tried out for the chorus of "South Pacific," and Broadway producers Rogers and Hammerstein cast her in the production, launching her stellar music and acting career.
"I wanted to become a veterinarian. As God would have it, I was given another path to follow. But I most miss not necessarily getting the degree, but the broad experiences you can only get in college," said Jones.
"I would tell students that no matter what else happens, you will always have the knowledge and experiences you've gained in that four years," said Jones, who cited actresses Brooke Shields, Jodi Foster and Sidney Penny, all of whom graduated from college, as grounded and well-rounded.
Jones, who returned to Pittsburgh last month for a family reunion and plans to stay for a couple of days with Hogan, has fond memories of her childhood in Smithton. Her two best friends from childhood remain her closest friends today.
She sang in the Methodist church choir at the age of 6 and took voice lessons weekly in Pittsburgh. She was crowned Miss Pittsburgh in 1952 and was first runner-up in the Miss Pennsylvania pageant.
"Sometimes I wish I could have raised my children in a small-town atmosphere, where there's a sense of grounding. It gives you a different perspective, to grow up in a little town where you can be on the street at 11 p.m. and not have to worry," she said.
Jones just finished filming two movies, "Nana's Boy," and Hallmark's "Hidden Places" and will perform in "Carousel" in Massachusetts this summer.
Jones is delighted that a new generation of children is enjoying her work, including her role as the matriarch of a rock-and-roll family band in "The Partridge Family," thanks to cable television and DVDs.
"It's wonderful. I have young kids who come backstage after a concert and say, 'I loved you in The Music Man.' They're calling me 'Marian' or 'Laurey,'" she said, memorable roles she played in the musicals "The Music Man" and "Oklahoma."
"That's exciting. To think my career would last this long, and a whole new audience is being introduced, is rewarding," said Jones.
She won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress in 1961 for her role as a prostitute in "Elmer Gantry."
Jones also has been recognized for her personal achievements, including being named Woman of the Year by both Childhelp USA and Children's Aid Organization. She has received the Gift of Life Award by the National Leukemia Council, and Angels Award for outstanding humanitarian efforts.