Friday, March 31, 2000 | 11:24 a.m.
Twenty years ago Las Vegas Sun photographer Ken Jones sought out the best vantage point from which to shoot the tragic MGM hotel fire.
Although the veteran newsman was a year past the traditional age of retirement, he boarded a helicopter and, high above the worst Strip resort disaster in history, he calmly snapped photos of the blaze that killed 87 and injured hundreds.
But shooting Las Vegas from the air was nothing new to Jones. His 40-year-old aerial photos of vast Las Vegas desert acreage are prized today as "before" pictures used by developers who built large residential developments on those sites and by others fascinated by the very roots of the community.
Kenneth Charles Jones, a prolific photographer who captured famous Las Vegas visitors including first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley, died Thursday at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center. He was 86.
Jones, who was a Sun photographer from Jan. 1, 1954, until his retirement on July 15, 1996, was to have received a pacemaker during an early-morning operation. However, he died in his sleep at 1 a.m. Thursday, a hospital official said.
Services for the Las Vegas resident of 46 years will be at 11 a.m. Monday at Palm Mortuary-Cheyenne, followed by a graveside service at Memory Garden Cemetery. Visitation will be 1-7 p.m. Sunday at Palm Mortuary-Cheyenne.
During his tenure at the Sun, Jones long served as chief photographer and photo editor. After his retirement, he remained a consultant and for a while continued his popular inquiring photographer column "Street Talk."
"Kenny lived a rich and full life and in doing so created a visual history of our city that cannot be duplicated," Sun Editor Brian Greenspun said. "If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Kenny's pictures speak volumes.
"I didn't miss him after he retired because he always came by for a visit. Now, I -- and thousands of Las Vegans whose lives he touched -- will miss him greatly."
Greenspun, son of late Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun, noted: "My first real job at the Sun was working in the photographic department for Ken Jones. Not only did I learn about taking pictures, but Kenny also taught me how one individual should treat another. It was a lesson I try never to forget."
Jones began his career in the days of the 4-by-5 Speed Graphic cameras -- the kind seen in old movies -- and later switched to the Rolli-Flex 120, remaining loyal to that bulky manual camera even after the news photography industry had long switched to 35 mm automatic cameras.
Sun Publisher Barbara Greenspun, widow of Hank Greenspun, remembered Jones as a "dedicated and loyal employee" whom every employer desires.
"In the early years of the Sun, Ken devoted time above and beyond the call of duty," she said. "Even in retirement, he was called upon from time to time to recollect important events he covered.
"A saddened Sun staff remembers this man of character and integrity. We offer our condolences to his family, to whom he left a proud legacy."
Ruthe Deskin, longtime assistant to the publisher of the Sun, recalled how she and Jones made a pact to retire on their 80th birthdays and often teased each other about remaining at their jobs long after those deadlines passed.
"It was my privilege to have worked with Ken Jones for more than 40 years," Deskin said. "His gentle nature and warm sense of humor endeared him to all. He treated everyone with dignity whether that person was a high government official or a homeless person. Ken was truly the Sun's ambassador of good will."
Sandra Thompson, Sun vice president and former managing editor, said Jones not only captured local history, "Ken Jones was a part of Las Vegas history.
"He was a gentle soul who was passionate about his trade," she said. "People enjoyed talking to Ken. He was charming and complimentary. He worked long after others retired and was an inspiration to his younger, less-experienced colleagues."
Retired Sun photographer Don Ploke had the distinction of both working for Jones and later becoming Jones' boss after Jones stepped down as editor to take senior photographer status.
"We have lost a good friend -- a man who took pride in his work and never complained about any assignment he was given," Ploke said. "Ken made a big contribution to the history of the city. His early aerial photos of the undeveloped desert are a treasure."
Longtime friend and fellow photographer Frank Mitrani remembered Jones as a great mentor.
"He was a kind man who got his job done and was nice about it in the process," said Mitrani, who worked for the Sun in 1957, the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 1957 until 1962 and was a longtime commercial photographer. "If there were people out there who were unlikable, Ken found something in them he liked. He loved everybody."
Sun copy editor Don Chase, who worked with Jones for more than 30 years, recalled how Jones rarely missed a monthly veteran news media luncheon.
"Ken and Frank were organizing last December's luncheon at Calico Jack's and Ken was unaware that Frank was working with Ken's family to hold a surprise party for him there," Chase said.
"It was the biggest turnout we ever had and Ken was totally surprised and overcome with emotion. We were happy we were able to make it a memorable event for Ken."
Born Dec. 9, 1913, in Akron, Ohio, Jones was one of two children of rubber factory worker Paul Jones and the former Iva Hazel.
After graduating from Kent State University High School, Jones attended Kent State University where he took photo journalism courses for two years. He also was trained at General Pictures Studio in Akron and was a staff photographer for Black & Decker Electric Co. and Ohio & Lamb Electric, both in Kent.
Jones' first newspaper job was for the Evening Record and the Courier-Tribune, dailies that served Kent and Ravenna.
Jones actually started to work for the Sun in 1951, but after eight months he returned to Ohio. He was back at the Sun three years later, beginning his local photography career in earnest at age 38.
"I was old when I got here," Jones mused in a July 7, 1996, Sun story.
He said he felt he would best be remembered for his "Street Talk" column, where for nearly 30 years Jones shot photos of 30 average citizens a week and recorded their opinions on a range of subjects.
Asked how he succeeded as a man-on-the-street photographer, Jones said in the 1996 interview: "You got to push yourself -- make an ass of yourself. I've been very fortunate. Very few people have refused comment. Most people have been gracious. I like the good-looking gals. They kind of brighten it up a little."
Jones was long known for being in the company of beautiful women.
"In between marriages I'd run around with a lot of showgirls," Jones said in 1996, noting that he convinced many of them to pose for him -- glamour shots that found their way to the Sun pages in the days long before such photographs were considered politically incorrect.
Jones said it was mutually beneficial for the women, who sought the free publicity through the photos, and for the Sun.
When Jones met his second wife, LaVerne, a cocktail waitress at the old Nevada Club, she at first resisted his requests for a date, but they were married in 1957. She survives him.
During his career, Jones captured on film a variety of lifestyles, from criminals to streakers. In the 1950s and '60s, no celebrity who came to town escaped his lens.
In 1951 Jones not only shot photos of Eleanor Roosevelt during a stopover at McCarran Airport but also conducted an exclusive interview with her when the Sun reporter failed to show up.
Other celebrities Jones shot included Zsa Zsa Gabor and Milton Berle. During Elvis Presley's first trip to Las Vegas, Jones accompanied him on a shopping spree and snapped a photo of the young rock 'n' roller holding a new pair of pants to his waist.
A famous photo often attributed to Jones was that of the flames consuming the El Rancho Vegas in 1960 and its trademark windmill collapsing into the inferno. The photo ran in newspapers all over the world. Jones, however, said it was his eldest son, Ken, who actually snapped the historic frame.
"He was working part time for the Sun," Jones said, setting the record straight. "He was at the front (of the building). I was at the back. He got the picture. I didn't get anything."
Jones said that while he didn't make a lot of money working for the Sun, he had a lot of fun. Hank Greenspun even urged Jones to leave the paper and take more lucrative jobs in hotel publicity departments that had long sought his talent.
"I've always been thankful I stayed (at the Sun)," Jones said. "It just seemed the natural place to be."
In addition to his wife and son Ken, Jones is survived by three other sons, Randy Jones, Mike Jones and Brad Jones, all of Las Vegas; three daughters, Beverly Liskum of North Hollywood, Calif., and Kim Jones and Lisa Salazar, both of Las Vegas; nine grandchildren, 10 great grandchildren; and two great-great grandchildren.
Jones was preceded in death by his sister, Dorothy Durkin, last year.
Ed Koch is a reporter for the Sun. He can be reached at (702) 259-4090 or by e-mail at [email protected]