Ron Jennings: He Told Our Stories

Recently while working on the history of the 1974 Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival, I was distracted by an article an old friend had written, and it paused my work abruptly. The article was by Ron Jennings and though I know I had always realized his journalistic talent; it was as if I was discovering his gifts for the first time.

Ron Jennings came to work as a reporter on the Sedalia Democrat about the time I began working on the first Sedalia Ragtime Festival and it wasn’t long before we became friends. Ron was just out of the MU School of Journalism. He hit the ground running and though I suspect this fellow from Stansbury, Missouri, never would have guessed it then, he was to spend the rest of his illustrious career telling Sedalia about itself.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Ron approached each assignment with exuberance. His behavior, I discovered, was impacted by his almost childlike excitement at meeting and interviewing people. I’m not writing about rich and famous celebrities here; Ron wrote that way about everyone he met. He had a genuine desire to know people and a capacity to probe without being offensive. I believe that is because he always looked for the best in others and refused to believe he couldn’t find something positive in their lives and personalities.

Early on, Douglas Kneibert, the legendary editor of the Sedalia Democrat, realized Ron’s potential and encouraged his feature writing. Soon Ron had a regular column focused on the way he looked at his community and the world.

As the first ragtime festivals materialized Ron was in his element and approached the headliners and historians like a kid awed to ask a rock star for an autograph. People quickly noticed as Ron’s interviews became the subject of conversations among the visitors, that he approached everyone at the festivals with the same excitement as he showed toward the celebrities.

Evergreen

In his career, Ron wrote on virtually every subject imaginable but when it came to local cultural events his pen seemed to be dipped in gold.

Ron enjoyed free-lancing as well as his regular journalistic duties and one of the articles of which he was most pleased was in the January/February 1975 Missouri Life Magazine titled “Ragtime Struts Back Home,” about the first Festivals.

We moved from Sedalia to Union, Missouri in 1976 so I could teach history at the community college here, but I returned to work on ragtime-related affairs off and on over the years. The last time I saw Ron, he told me his doctors had given up on his brain cancer and he had to retire. The gist of the rest of our conversation was that he regretted all the stories about people he wasn’t going to get to write because there were so many on his “to do” list. I quickly realized that nearly everyone in town was probably on that list.

The Missouri Press Association honors Ron Jennings’ induction into the MPA’s Hall of Fame. (photo from The St. Louis American, Sept. 15, 2011)

Just four months before his death, the Missouri Press Association appropriately extended their highest honor to Ron and inducted him into the Missouri Journalism Hall of Fame. He had been the recipient of many of their awards throughout his career. Ron attended in a wheelchair, but his brother had to deliver his acceptance speech.

I once dedicated my recollections about working on those first landmark festivals to Ron and tried to sum up who he was when I wrote, “Ron Jennings approached everyone he ever interviewed as if they were the most important person in the world…and to him, we were.“

Nauck

After battling brain cancer for over twenty years, in addition to all Ron’s other contributions, he became an example of extreme courage and a powerful inspiration for us all.

Upon his retirement The Sedalia Democrat asked Ron to select some of his favorite stories for the paper to publish as “Reflections and Ruminations of an Aging Rookie.” Ron wrote descriptively, and his words formed perfectly focused images in reader’s minds. He also wrote with a wry wit as well, that reflected the twinkle in his eye. For the ragtime community, Ron chronicled the era and history of the early Scott Joplin Ragtime Festivals in his many articles

Ron died on January 13, 2012, at the age of only 62. It would be near sacrilege not to celebrate his life with joy, for Ron Jennings seemed one of the most joy-filled people many of us have ever known.

Elvis

Larry Melton was a founder of the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in 1974 and the Sedalia Ragtime Archive in 1976. He was a Sedalia Chamber of Commerce manager before moving on to Union, Missouri where he is currently helping to conserve the Ragtime collection of the Sedalia Heritage Foundation. Write him at [email protected].

Or look at our Subscription Options.