“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a doctor,” says Keith A. (Tony) Jones, MD, Senior Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs, President of the University of Alabama Health Services Foundation, and inaugural Chief Physician Executive of UAB Medicine. From the time he was only six or seven years old, enthralled by the adventures of the television character Marcus Welby, M.D., the medical profession struck Jones as having “such a sense of purpose.”

“He was a hometown doctor, taking care of generations of families,” Jones remembers. “I was mesmerized by it. I always knew that medicine was what I was going to do.”

Tony Jones 2The former Alfred Habeeb Professor and Chair of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine at UAB (2006-2017), as Chief Physician Executive, Jones is now responsible for oversight, collaboration, integration, and strategy, with the UAB Health System, UAB School of Medicine, and the University of Alabama Health Services Foundation Board of Directors. The current reality seems far distant from the imaginings of the native Alabamian child who so admired the ersatz Welby.

Although he was born in Anniston, Alabama, Jones spent very little of his early years there. While he was still an infant, his father was deployed as an Army officer to Europe. Young Tony grew to school age in France and Germany, and attended kindergarten in France, in a non-military French-speaking school. Jones and his family returned to the United States, to Fort Lee, Virginia, around 1966; very shortly thereafter his father was sent to serve in Vietnam. It was around this age that Jones discovered the wonders of the television show Marcus Welby, M.D., and the vision of making a difference to the community that the protagonist espoused. It was a vision he kept at the forefront of his mind following his father’s return to the United States, the family’s relocation to Fort McClellan, and his parents’ divorce when Jones was 10. Jones’ father moved to Chicago; Jones, his mother, and his two brothers stayed in Saks, Alabama.

It was a time of great unrest in Alabama. The success of the civil rights movement had inspired opponents of integration to redouble their efforts. While segregation was technically illegal, many of the more rural areas in the deep South still experienced de facto segregation, as bussing hadn’t yet begun to intentionally integrate schools.

In spite of this, Jones never felt that his race would be a barrier to achieving his dreams. Spending his early formative years among military families, with their wealth of diversity, had led him to accept racial equality as a given. Because of this, he wasn’t fearful when he and his older brother were among the first African American students in the middle school in Saks, Alabama.

“At the time,” Jones recalls, “I didn’t really worry. I just wanted to get things done so I could play baseball with friends.”

Initially, Jones didn’t present as a stellar student. “If I got a ‘C’ on my report card, it was cause for celebration,” he says. But then a perfect grade on a health exam in 5th grade resonated with him and sparked an understanding that being a good student was rewarding. His academic behaviors changed, and with them, his academic performance. Throughout middle school and high school, he surrounded himself with a close circle of friends who shared his interests, values, and desire for success.

Jones had both white and black friends, and he remembers 7th grade as the time “when things got interesting.” It was during his 7th grade year that the city began bussing African American students from Central City High School in Anniston to Saks. Protests erupted.  Mentally, Jones removed himself from the conflict, even when he was on the receiving end of racial slurs. Although he had white friends, some of the parents of those friends didn’t permit Jones entry into their homes.

“What I would say today,” he says, “looking back, is that those things [racial conflict and racism] matter, and they shouldn’t be ignored. I’m just saying that I was one of those people who had a crystal clear image of what I wanted to do, and I also had a crystal clear image of what was necessary.”

His parents were straightforward with Jones about the work ethic and commitment that following the path to becoming a physician would require – a work burden that would be much heavier because of his race. Jones remembers spending a summer in his 14th or 15th year with his father in Chicago.

“Why did you join the military?” Tony asked his father.

“That’s what I had to do to get from where I was, growing up as a kid in poverty, to achieve what was necessary for my family,” his father said. “When I was growing up, there were only a few paths for a black man to move up in the world” (his father’s route had included graduating from college and being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant). He then explained to his son that there was a racial dynamic at play in society that meant that, as a black man, Tony would have to work much harder than his white counterparts to achieve similar recognition. “The real question,” his father said, “is, are you willing to work harder? Because the world is unfair; it will always be unfair. The question is, what are you willing to do to ensure those opportunities are open to you?”

Jones believed it was worth the effort. After finishing his undergraduate degree in microbiology from the University of Alabama and marrying his college sweetheart, Evelyn, Jones completed a medical degree from the University of Alabama. But the experience of earning his medical degree left him with an aversion to pursuing his residency in the South.

“I’m not a person who needs a lot of friends,” Jones, whose closest friend from high school joined him in medical school, says. “But there was a sense [at University of Alabama School of Medicine] that I wasn’t welcome. It was all right with me to have to work harder to achieve the same goals, but there was a level of unfairness there that was not within my control. My problem was not necessarily with the sense of unfairness, but that it was an unfairness that could not be overcome with hard work.”

Dr. William Shamblin, Jones’ mentor, suggested that Jones pursue a residency at the Mayo Clinic, because “it was the best place to go to become a surgeon.” Shamblin arranged for Jones to do a summer rotation at the Mayo Clinic at the beginning of Jones’ 4th year of medical school. Around that time, Jones developed an interest in anesthesia, and so when the time came, he interviewed at Mayo for an anesthesia residency. The interview went so well that Jones decided not to apply anywhere else. His gamble paid off, and, upon earning his medical degree, Jones and his wife, Evelyn, moved to Rochester, Minnesota.

“When I went to residency there, I had everything figured out,” Jones says. “I was going to spend four years there, maybe five, and then I was going to move back to Alabama and get into private practice. None of that is what happened.”

The Mayo Clinic instantly felt welcoming. “Most of the medical students, residents, and faculty were from somewhere else,” Jones says. It reminded me of the environment of my early days as a military child. There were more than 25,000 employees, comprising a cross-section not only of the country, but the globe.

Ultimately, Jones stayed on at Mayo to complete subspecialty training as a neurosurgical anesthesiologist and a research fellowship supported by an NIH training grant where he had to refresh his knowledge of biochemistry, molecular biology, and biophysics. Those in leadership positions at Mayo identified Jones’ inherent curiosity, and urged him toward research. One day after call, one of his mentors pulled him into a research lab and showed him the means by which they were measuring the contraction of tissue.

Jones was instantly hooked on research. “Oh, my God,” he remembers thinking, “I can answer my questions.”

During his time at Mayo, Jones and his wife had two children while he made the journey from resident, to fellow, to faculty. He recalls thriving in the environment at Mayo. Advancement, he says, seemed to be based primarily on merit, on what you could do and what you could accomplish.

When he was invited to apply for an opening for the position of chair of the department of anesthesiology at UAB School of Medicine, he was reluctant to consider leaving the place that had provided such a fulfilling experience for him.

“But by the time I finished the first round of interviews at UAB,” he says, “I realized that there was opportunity all over the place. There was tremendous diversity.” He believed the city had changed, that the school itself had transformed. He accepted the offered position in 2006, and served as chair until assuming the position of Chief Physician Executive in 2017.

UAB has proved an excellent fit for Jones in many ways; the position of Chief Physician Executive brings a new dimension to UAB. “I’m a scientist at heart,” Jones says. “And the clinical practice challenges we’re called upon to solve, it’s science to me. I love it. You can’t throw enough at me.”