Mrs. Jones and Dr. Truitt: 2 centenarians of the Chesapeake


BEFORE the new year pushes 1991 far into the mists, all Marylanders should pause and give thanks for two centenarians of the Chesapeake -- Mrs. W. Alton Jones and Dr. Reginald van Trump Truitt. Both of them served the land of pleasant living long and well, and both of them said their final goodbyes in 1991 at age 100.

Dr. Truitt, Maryland's earliest pioneer in the study of marine biology and ecology, concentrated on the Chesapeake Bay, while Mrs. Jones gave most of her attention to the land around the bay, particularly Talbot County and the upper Eastern Shore. The Solomons Island Marine Biology Laboratory, first of its kind on the Atlantic Coast, is Dr. Truitt's most tangible memorial, while the Hog Neck Golf Course, near Easton, is probably the thing most Marylanders associate with Mrs. Jones. However, the intangible contributions both made to Maryland probably will far outlive both the laboratory and the golf course.

Both Mrs. Jones, or Nettie Marie as she liked to be called, and Reg Truitt had a zest for life and a sense of humor which delighted all who knew them, and these two characteristics may offer a partial explanation as to why they lived so far beyond the three score years and 10 allotted to people by King David and the Bible.

When Reginald Truitt was a mere 76 years old, the wife of one of his former students at Solomons Island said to him: "Dr. Truitt, why is it that you stand so slim and erect at 76 while some other men I know who are a lot younger are pudgy and bent over or both?"

Dr. Truitt replied instantly. "I owe it all, Madam, to piety . . . during my youth." There was a pause which would have done credit to George Burns or Bob Hope before the last three words of his explanation.

When asked if he knew why an expensive muskrat farming venture had failed during the 1920s, his answer was equally prompt: "It was a matter of ignorance and knowledge. The people trying to run the muskrat farm were ignorant, and the muskrats had all the knowledge. I was technical adviser for the company, and I told them they should study muskrats for a few years before trying to farm them. But they wouldn't listen, so it cost them a bundle."

Mrs. Jones was nearly as tart in her comments. When she was a member of the board of trustees of Washington College, she opposed offering an honorary degree to President Nixon a year or two before Watergate unhorsed him. Asked why she opposed the president, she said: "I'm not exactly sure myself, but I've known him ever since he used to come to our house with Ike Eisenhower to play poker with Alton and the boys, and I just never did like the son of a . . . gun."

Mrs. Jones' philanthropies were widespread, ranging from a cell biology laboratory in New York to the Society of Shakers in Missouri, but she concentrated on the Eastern Shore, where she lived for many years. There, among other things, she endowed a chair of chemistry at Washington College in honor of her deceased husband W. Alton Jones, rebuilt the YMCA at Easton and gave Talbot County the money needed to build the Hog Neck Golf Course and the ice skating rink across the road from it. Asked why she supported recreation so generously, Mrs. Jones produced another of her famous grins and said: "Because the human race gets into a lot of trouble if it doesn't have some fun along the way. That was Alton's theory, and I think he was right."

Reginald Truitt seemed to have a similar philosophy. In addition to his pioneering work on the ecology of the Chesapeake and its surrounding wetlands, he was a pioneer in the game of lacrosse. He played and coached the game and in 1959 was voted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame. His 1924 University of Maryland outfit was the first Terrapin team ever to defeat perennial powerhouse Johns Hopkins.

"I also beat Del Fox in a footrace," he said. And when his listener looked blank at this disclosure, he went on to explain that "Del Fox was supposed to be the fastest runner on the Eastern Shore until I beat him by 10 yards. He was the father of Jimmy Foxx, the old baseball hall of famer, but when I first knew the Fox family it had only one x in its last name. The baseball writers made it a double x when Jimmy Foxx became a slugger of Babe Ruth caliber."

Reginald Truitt was born on the Eastern Shore, only a few miles from the Chincoteague Bay. "Chincoteague oysters were the tastiest I ever ate," he said, "and they may have been one reason why I always wanted to study marine biology." Nettie Marie Jones was born in Missouri, and when her husband's work as president of a major oil company took them to New York City, the urban life was too much for her. "I wanted to get out of New York City," she said, "so Alton and I searched the whole East Coast for a summer place. Then when we looked at Talbot County with its hundreds of miles of waterfront I fell in love with it and wanted to be there all year long."

The paths of these two centenarians of the Chesapeake crossed more frequently where the Choptank River meets the bay, because that is where Mrs. Jones made her home for about 30 years and also where Dr. Truitt met and married Mary Harrington, daughter of the late Gov. Emerson C. Harrington of Cambridge. They both moved away from the Chesapeake-Choptank area for the last decade and a half of their 100 years, Mrs. Jones to Charlottesville, Va., where her daughter lived, and Dr. Truitt to Kent Island. But neither ever lost interest in the Chesapeake country, which will continue to benefit from the research Dr. Truitt conducted over so many years, and the multitude of activities Mrs. Jones supported in her efforts to make Maryland the genuine land of pleasant living.

It has been said that familiarity is the mother of contempt, but it did not work that way with Nettie Marie Jones and Reginald van Trump Truitt. The more Marylanders got to know them, the more they liked and respected them.

P.J. Wingate writes from Wilmington, Del.

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