It all started on a cold winter day in Chicago. The year was 1939.
First-grader Bob Jones watched his mother, Catherine Jones, hand him off to a couple of fourth-graders. She didn’t want to walk him to school in the frigid winds, but she was able to enlist some neighborhood kids with this task — for a small fee.
Tom Walsh said he doesn’t remember whether he was given a penny or a nickel for his services — either was a lot of money to him back then — but he does remember that this was the beginning of a beautiful, unexpected friendship that has spanned 81 years and multiple states.
Bob Jones, of Village Rio Ponderosa, said the three-year age difference between Walsh and himself mattered less and less over the years. It really only affected their friendship when they began playing softball together because “no one wanted the 9-year-old.”
“If you’re involved in sports, you become close,” Jones said. “There was no Little League back then. We just got together with other kids — in two blocks, we had enough kids for three teams.”
Softball soon became a kindling for Jones and Walsh’s friendship, but over the years it was their mutual interests and similar values that kept them going strong.
As they grew up, life separated them slightly. Jones went into the Air Force before attending the University of Illinois and Walsh attended Wright Junior College — now Wilbur Wright College — before they were reunited through the Chicago Police Department.
“In 1985, we made sergeant together (at the Chicago Police Department),” Jones said. “That was something really special.”
They began seeing each other on social occasions with their wives and even started having children around the same time, with Jones having five in his family and Walsh raising seven. Soon, they were even playing softball together again, this time on the police department’s team.
In over 80 years, Walsh said the biggest difference the two have had was living on separate sides of Chicago — Walsh on the north and Jones on the south side. After that, the two men knew they could never live that far apart and ended up moving to Florida around the same time, too.
After one visit to Jones’s Villages home in 1996, Walsh put his Clearwater house up for sale and joined his lifelong friend in The Villages.
Now, they try to see each other weekly — although that’s been more difficult with the coronavirus pandemic — and their wives even get together without them to play cards.
“And we continued to play softball together here until a few years ago,” said Walsh, of Village Rio Ranchero. “We just get along.”
Shirley Jones, Bob’s wife, joked the two men get along so well now because they “don’t even hear each other anymore.”
To their memories, the biggest fight Walsh and Jones have ever had was over the pronunciation of the word “merlot,” which they said must make them pretty lucky.
“We’ve never not had a friendship,” Jones said. “Since we met, we’ve never been enemies or anything like that. We’re just friends.”