When he was being treated in a Houston hospital, not long before he died, doctors asked Davis Jones what he did for a living.
“I’m an adventurer,” said the Triangle entrepreneur and man of far-reaching interests.
Jones, 56, was dying from fungal pneumonia he had contracted while hiking the Paria Canyon in Arizona. It was one of many side trips he took on his way from California to Raleigh for Thanksgiving.
He had ventured to the West Coast to research his latest business interest, and could not pass up an opportunity to explore a natural treasure. But the pneumonia he contracted sleeping in the canyon one night proved more dangerous because of a preexisting heart condition, and he died about two weeks later.
But at 56, he had already had more adventures – and overcome more challenges – than most.
Since he was a teenager in Raleigh, Jones had sought out and created business ventures, some successful, but many not. His father, Dave Jones (former general manager of The News & Observer), recalled how his teenage son started his first company, DJ Paint Company, at age 16, going door-to-door and soliciting work on homes probably far grander than his team of buddies and ladders should have taken on.
But it worked out, and he kept the painting business going through his junior year of college.
“He was just sort of entrepreneurial in every fashion, form or manner. He was always thinking about how to do something business-wise,” said longtime friend and former DJ Paint Company employee Bill Dixon, of Raleigh.
All the while he was dealing with a bipolar disorder that had first manifested itself while he was an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill. It was a disease that took a while to diagnose, and was a shape-shifter throughout his life. Early on he mostly managed it by staying active – running marathons, skiing out west, and hiking the Appalachian Trail on his way to Texas.
In Dallas, he not only studied building and construction, but met the love of his life, Karin March. The two married and soon had two children.
It was not until his wife died when he was in his early 30s that the disorder became more serious, family members said. His wife, to whom he once referred to as “human champagne,” was diagnosed with cancer and given just one year to live.
“Davey said he had one year with Karin,” recalled his mother, Susie Jones. Jones decided he would take care of her. In that year he let his business, a fledgling computer-parts company with a lot of potential, wither on the vine.
“My dad never really recovered from my mother,” said his daughter, Culbreth Jones of Raleigh.
Davis Jones raised his children, just 5 and 3 years old at the time of their mother’s death. He had a significant amount of support, spending periods of time living with his parents, but was very much a single dad.
Her death triggered the bipolar disorder in a way that had not happened before, and so began decades of ups and downs – the largest effect landing on his professional career. Though he found occasional successes with various business ventures, most did not work out. He seemed unable to approach projects in piecemeal fashion.
His brother, Adam Jones of Chapel Hill, said Davey had a hard time starting small. He’d want to take an idea to the national level right away, rather than start locally.
He also had difficulty working his way up within other companies. His intelligence was renowned, with an IQ of genius level, his family said. That made it hard for him to work with, or for, others at times.
“I think the remarkable thing was he was a man of more integrity than this world dreamt of,” his mother said.
But despite his professional struggles, he always remained passionate about his personal interests, writing three books, one an in-depth family history titled “Of Thy Blood,” and taking many adventurous trips.
He stayed active, running marathons and completing two Outward Bound journeys. He also enlisted in the military just before his children were born, joining the Army and finishing first in his officers training class. He loved the military, his family said, but as a single father it became too much to leave town for training, so he retired a year after his wife died.
He never wanted the bipolar disorder to define who he was as a person, and kept it private. Many did not learn about it until his obituary was published online.
“He told me he was a very good actor,” his mother said. Susie Jones remembers how “he would be charming and then excuse himself after a few minutes” when he wasn’t feeling well.
Friends and family simply remember a man who was always thoughtful and incredibly engaging.
He was a “goof” of an uncle, taking nephews to movies to circumvent instructions that they were not to watch television, his sister Annetta Hoggard said. “He wanted to take care of the world,” she said. “He wanted to take care of everybody.”
He encouraged his brother to start what would become a successful real estate business in Carrboro, teaching him how to restore homes and helping him fund the first bid he ever put on a dilapidated millhouse.
Adam Jones misses the brother who taught him how to ski, and who walked him and their father through Civil War battlegrounds, passionate about history.
“Davey knew all the ins and outs of Gettysburg, and the regiments and the positioning,” Adam Jones said.
His family intends to create a memorial for him at Fort Fisher near the mouth of the Cape Fear River – another old haunt of his where his passions for the outdoors and history converged.
Davis Jones’ family and friends agree that he lived with a breadth and passion that few people demonstrate.
“I’m also really happy that he’s at peace and with my mom,” Culbreth Jones said.