02/15/1988 at 01:00 AM EST
Late one night, shortly after PEOPLE began publication in 1974, staffers noticed smoke wafting from Senior Editor Cranston Jones's office. Rushing to investigate, they found Jones busy at his typewriter, oblivious to flames rising from a wastebasket next to his desk. His colleagues doused the blaze, which had been started by a wayward cigarette. "I never really intended to set the magazine on fire," says Jones, no longer a smoker. "I was just concentrating on getting the story done."
This month, after having edited more than 2,500 stories—including dozens of Publisher's Letters—Jones is retiring from PEOPLE, a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday. He leaves a legacy of many jobs well done. "Cran is our most worldly-wise editor, a consummate gentleman and a friend to writers," says Managing Editor Jim Gaines. "We're going to miss him." Pat Ryan, Gaines's predecessor and now Managing Editor of LIFE, adds, "Every magazine needs a conservative eye to keep the young whippersnappers in check, but one who does it with great kindness and wisdom. That was Cran, a courtly charmer always gracing the hallways with a smile or some witticism."
Jones, who was born in Albany, N.Y., attended Harvard, where he became a champion fencer while earning a B.S. degree in history. In 1940 he began a $20-a-week office boy job at TIME. "When Pearl Harbor was bombed," he says, "I was the first one to catch the flash on the clanging AP ticker." Soon afterward Jones joined the Navy, where he rose to lieutenant and eventually to command of a destroyer escort in the Pacific. "In retrospect, I probably peaked right then, and I was only 28," he notes with a chuckle. After the war he served as a TIME-LIFE correspondent in San Francisco, London, Paris and Rio de Janeiro, finagling interviews with, among many others, Winston Churchill, the Sultan of Morocco and an Amazon Indian chief. Marriage to Jean Campbell in 1949 was followed by the birth of their two children, Abigail, now 35, and Baird, 32. In 1961 he became a TIME senior editor, and in 1970 the founding editor of Travel & Leisure. A gourmet and avid yachtsman, Cran also has written four books, including Architecture Today & Tomorrow and Homes of the American Presidents.
"When I came to PEOPLE in '74, I knew I was a good fit," he says. "I love history, and the most exciting thing about history is people. Back then we had only four editors and a handful of writers. It was exhausting but exhilarating—we were writing about people, and what can be better than that?" The person he most remembers writing about was David, "The Boy in the Bubble," who suffered from an immune system deficiency that forced him to spend most of his life in a specially constructed isolation chamber. David died in 1984, at 12, after an attempted surgical cure failed. "Writing about children is never dull," says Jones. "It's dealing with truth and joy and sometimes tears, and that's never a cliché."
Removing his feet from his desk, which is decorated with a rubber mouse and a kazoo, Jones swivels his chair around to look out his 29th-floor window. He explains that he plans to write a biography of Roger Williams, one of his forebears and the founder of Providence, R.I., then points to the horizon and a church dome that's about to disappear behind a new high-rise. "I always looked at that dome to help me concentrate," he says. "Now it's almost out of sight, so I guess I'm leaving just in time."
Wrong, Cran. All too soon.