Joab Langston Thomas, who grew up in a small town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, found his life’s purpose in higher education, earning three degrees at Harvard and ultimately leading three of the country’s top public research universities. Thomas, NC State’s ninth chancellor, died Monday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was 81.
“Joab Thomas left an indelible mark on the university,” said Chancellor Randy Woodson. “His steady leadership, for example, led to the creation of NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, which has grown into one of the top such schools in the nation. From a family of educators, he dedicated his life to teaching and learning, and everyone he knew and mentored was richer for the experience.”
Thomas, then 42, was selected in the fall of 1975 to replace Chancellor John T. Caldwell, one of the university’s longest-serving chief executives. “He would come with fresh perspectives, ready to fit the energetic thrust that has characterized NC State,” wrote editorial director Hardy D. Berry in the university’s monthly newspaper, The Journal.
Thomas was welcomed to North Carolina as a scientist and a Southerner, The Journal reported in its October 1975 issue, hailing from a small town less than 200 miles from Caldwell’s Mississippi hometown.
“Dr. Thomas is an extraordinary combination of scholar, teacher and administrator,” said professor James B. Wilson, a past president of the Faculty Senate who served on the chancellor search committee. “It seems that he is an administrator who has made difficult decisions with tact and understanding, and … has earned the respect and indeed the praise of students and his colleagues at all levels.”
“I am delighted with his appointment,” added William C. Friday, then president of the university system. “Dr. Thomas is recognized as a good teacher, an experienced administrator, and a man of high character and purposes.”
Small Town, Big Dreams
Thomas was born and raised in Russellville, Ala., a rural community of small cotton farms established after the War of 1812, when the federal government improved the road between Nashville and New Orleans. His father was the local school superintendent; his mother gave piano and organ lessons.
The family was “close-knit and proud,” said Mary Streit, editor of the Franklin Citizen Times, Russellville’s weekly newspaper. Thomas’ parents “instilled their children with drive and ambition,” she added.
During the Depression, Thomas’ father was paid in scrip, she told The Journal. Ambition, it turns out, was more plentiful than money. But the Thomas children put their ambition – and their intellect – to good use. When an older brother went to Harvard to study medicine, Thomas followed him there, turning down football scholarships from several Southeastern Conference schools to accept a full academic scholarship at the Ivy League institution.
At Harvard, where he earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in biology, Thomas met and married Marly Allene Dukes, who survives him. The couple had four children.
After serving as a teaching fellow at Harvard and a cytotaxonomist at the Arnold Arboretum, Thomas returned to Alabama in 1961 and joined the faculty at the University of Alabama as an assistant professor of biology. At UA he would author 20 research papers and earn numerous teaching awards before taking the helm of student affairs in the turbulent protest era of the late 1960s.
His strong record of teaching, research and scholarship – along with his record in student affairs – helped Thomas catch the eye of NC State’s chancellor search committee in 1975. After screening 180 nominees over 10 months, the committee tapped Thomas to lead the rapidly growing land-grant university.
New Man on Campus
When Thomas arrived on campus in January 1976, the first question local media asked was the proper pronunciation of his first name. “His name would perplex the reader momentarily but have a catchy ring and be easily remembered,” The Journal reported.
The newspaper presented it phonetically for its baffled audience: “Joab … Joe-Ab.”
After he settled in to Holladay Hall and got past the introductions, Thomas thrived. By the time he left NC State in 1981 to serve as president of the University of Alabama, Thomas had lived up to the search committee’s expectations.
Addressing a Founders Day event that year, Gov. Jim Hunt praised Thomas for his accomplishments.
“Your leadership has enriched this university and the entire state,” he said. “The dream of the founders would never have come true so fast had you and Marly not come here and led us these years.”
Indeed, under Thomas’ leadership, the D.H. Hill Library acquired its one millionth volume, the university’s budget grew by $76 million, salaries increased by 43 percent, grants and contracts doubled, private giving jumped by more than 80 percent, and more than a dozen buildings were erected or renovated. The quality of the faculty and the student body improved as well.
“There is a sense of momentum on this campus; the morale is excellent,” Thomas told the faculty at its spring meeting. “We have achieved a high plateau and are poised to emerge to a new state of pre-eminence.”
After NC State
After serving as president of UA for seven years, Thomas resigned and returned to the faculty. He was selected in 1990 to serve as president of Penn State, where he strengthened undergraduate academic programs, navigated budget cuts and finished its transition to the Big 10 athletic conference.
Thomas received honorary doctorate degrees from NC State, the University of Alabama, Stillman College and Tri-State University. Buildings at NC State and Penn State are named in his honor. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi and was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 1983.
In addition to his wife, Thomas is survived by his children: Catherine McGee (Robert S. McGee, Jr.) of Greensboro, N.C.; David Thomas (Mari Lunde) of Cincinnati, Ohio; Jennifer Bolton (Timothy J. Bolton) of Tuscaloosa; and Frances Thomas Doherty of Athens, Ga., and 13 grandchildren.
Memorial gifts may be made to the North Carolina State University Foundation, the Joab Thomas Scholarship at the University of Alabama, or the Joab and Marly Thomas Graduate Fellowship at the Pennsylvania State University.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m., Thursday, March 6 at Christ Episcopal Church in Tuscaloosa. Visitation and reception will follow the service in UA’s Randall Hall.