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Dan Jones got his start in teaching while he was still in the military, holding weekend classes on the U.S. Constitution for Hungarian freedom fighters who had traveled to the United States.

At the time, it was the military, not teaching or polling, that Jones thought would define his career.

After more than half a century in the classroom, Jones is taking his retirement, receiving emeritus status from the University of Utah, where he sought to instill his students with a drive to be involved in the political process and government.

On Wednesday, some of those former students — now elected officials, lobbyists, attorneys and academics — gathered for a breakfast to honor Jones.

"The biggest contribution from Dan is his love of students, his dedication, his commitment. We could all take a lesson from Dan," said Jim Gosling, chairman of the U. political science department.

Jones began his civilian teaching life in 1959, after a call-up of National Guard troops left schools with a shortage of teachers. Jones didn't have his credentials, but began teaching high school American government courses on the understanding he would get them later.

He was admitted to graduate school at the University of Utah that year and began teaching a class a quarter.

That same year, he got his first polling job, doing a poll for The Salt Lake Tribune in the Salt Lake City mayoral contest between the incumbent J. Bracken Lee and Bruce Jenkins.

Jones said the assassination of President John F. Kennedy cemented his commitment to education.

"That had the greatest impact on me and I knew I'd get involved. I would teach and not preach," he said. "I would try to get students to say 'What can I do for my country?' instead of so much 'What can my country do for me?' "

Jones said his students changed his mind on the Vietnam War and he saw their disappointment during Watergate. One of his students at Utah State University at the time was Jack Ford, the son of the man who would be president, Gerald Ford. Jones said Jack told him well in advance his dad would soon occupy the White House. He got a "B" in the class.

After earning his doctorate in 1968, Jones taught a dozen years at Utah State, running the Bureau of Government and Opinion Research, conducting polls for television stations and, in 1976, doing work for U.S. Senate candidate Orrin Hatch.

He would launch Dan Jones & Associates, the state's most prominent polling firm, where he has done polling for Hatch, Gov. Scott Matheson, Gov. Norm Bangerter, Gov. Mike Leavitt and others and will continue to work. He began teaching at the University of Utah in 1980.

Doug Foxley, now a lobbyist at Utah's Capitol, took Jones' course as an undergraduate and spent a year as Jones' graduate assistant at Utah State.

"It was one of the most magical years of my life. He has a gift and talent that I have not seen in anyone else," Foxley said. He can make even the dull and mundane interesting and he had a passion for politics, a passion for government and he had a passion for people. He inspired all of us to go do good things and get involved and be proud of what we did."

Foxley said Jones introduced him to Bangerter, whose gubernatorial campaign Foxley ran and opened doors for his former student.

"He admonished us all to get involved. Pick a campaign and get involved. He didn't care which one, just get involved," said Kim Powell, who wasn't interested in politics when she took Jones' government class in 1984, but became a state delegate and remains active.

Without his influence, she wouldn't have been involved in government and might not have married her husband, Kraig Powell, who is a state representative.

"It was probably one of the five most pivotal moments in my life, for what we're doing and who I am right now is taking his class," she said. "For me, personally, it was one of the most monumental things that occurred."

Twitter: @RobertGehrke