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The luckiest man in Southern Oregon

Randy Jones was hovering in his helicopter above two boys stranded on a rocky island in the middle of the raging Rogue River.

If he landed wrong on the uneven terrain, his helicopter would roll over and the rotating blades would strike the ground, hurling broken helicopter parts and debris at the boys.

“I get there and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness. How am I going to do this?’” he recalled.

Keeping a close eye on the rocks below, Jones stuck the landing.

He got out of his helicopter and approached the boys, who had reached the island after using a plastic wading pool as a boat and washing over a diversion dam near Gold Hill.

“I said to the boys, ‘Have you ever flown in a helicopter before?’” he said.

Jones got the brothers belted into his helicopter, gave then headsets and flew them to the safety of a waiting Jackson County Sheriff’s Office search and rescue team.

The 2006 rescue was just one of 35 rescues Jones pulled off while serving as lead helicopter pilot for search and rescue. Using his eagle-eye view, he also located 38 people and the remains of three others.

“Aviation was my passion,” said Jones, a partner with Mahar Homes and a local builder with decades of experience.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners presented Jones with the county’s annual lifetime achievement award this week for his community service.

While juggling a career, family and search and rescue missions, Jones played critical behind-the-scenes roles on a wide range of community projects.

He coordinated a major remodeling project and helped raise funds for Dunn House, which shelters adults and kids fleeing domestic violence.

Jones helped raise money and oversaw construction of the Mistletoe House, which aids kids who’ve suffered physical and sexual abuse.

After Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras in 1998, Jones helped build and sell a portable house — raising enough money to build 16 new homes in a country devastated by floods and landslides.

“Service to the community has been a way of life for Randy,” said Jackson County Commissioner Bob Strosser. “The most common comment I get is, ‘That’s just the way he is.’”

These days, Jones has given up his helicopter, which was once stationed at a hangar at his house, ready to lift off at a moment’s notice.

He’s been diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, a degenerative disease that’s causing the muscles in his arms, hands, legs and feet to waste away. Doctors estimate he’s 10 years into a disease that leaves patients wheelchair-bound within 15 years.

There is no known cure.

Jones is keeping his positive attitude and sense of humor despite the diagnosis.

“If you see me struggling to get out of my car or something, or you see me not being able to open a door or hang onto something, just come over and help me,” Jones told a standing room-only crowd during an award presentation this week. “When you guys are in the men’s room and you see I’m struggling zipping up my fly, just help me out. I won’t take it personal. I’ll appreciate it.”

Jones said he looks to the example of baseball player Lou Gehrig, who gave a famous 1939 speech in Yankee Stadium after news broke he’d been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral schlerosis. Known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, the incurable disease kills off neurons that control muscles.

“For the past two weeks you’ve been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” Gehrig told the stadium crowd.

Jones said he understands why Gehrig spoke those words.

“Why did he say that? It was the outpouring from people that cared,” he said.

Jones said he considers himself to be one of the most blessed men in Southern Oregon because of the community.

As just one example, he told how he is attending a water therapy exercise class with people suffering from a variety of ailments.

“When I first went there, I was a little intimidated — and I don’t intimidate easy. But in my physical state right now, you could blow on me and I’d fall over,” Jones said.

On his third visit, a lady from the class approached him and invited him to join their circle of supportive friends.

“She said, ‘If you ever get a little depressed and you’re just feeling down, just give us a call and we’ll come pick you up and bring you to class,’” Jones said.

Back in his search and rescue days, Jones said, when he was uncertain about a mission he would send up a little prayer and then listen for a tug on his heart.

“People don’t understand how I can find people 20 miles away from the search zone. I get that little tug,” he said.

Jones urged everyone to pay attention to those signals.

“If you hear that your neighbor is struggling a little bit, maybe somebody at church, just give them a call. Just talk to them. That can change that person’s life forever,” he said.

During years of search and rescue work, Jones said he encountered many people who got lost, stranded or injured because they made poor choices or were unprepared. Members of the public sometimes asked him why he would spend his time and risk his own safety to rescue them.

“People put themselves in unusual predicaments,” he said. “We can’t judge them. We just have to help them.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneFormer search and rescue helicopter pilot Randy Jones received Jackson County’s annual lifetime achievement award.