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Jack Thomas D'90

Jack Thomas D'90 When Jack Thomas was growing up in rural Alabama, his mother wanted him to be the first in their family to attend college.

Her encouragement started him on his academic career, in which he earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Alabama A&M University, a master’s degree in English Education from Virginia State University, and ultimately a Ph.D. in English/Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Thomas said his success comes from his father’s strong work ethic and his mother’s advice: “If you stay the course and work hard, it all pays off.”

“I went to college wanting to be a high school English teacher,” he said. “At that point, I wasn’t really thinking about a master’s degree.”

A professor encouraged him to pursue a graduate degree, citing the scarcity of African Americans in higher education, so Dr. Thomas applied and was accepted at Virginia State University and graduated with a master’s degree in 1985.

While teaching at South Carolina State University, he was encouraged by Garnett Lloyd Mack, a professor of English at Virginia State, to obtain a doctorate.

“Since I was teaching full-time, I wanted to go to a university with a summer Ph.D. program,” he said, “and Dr. Mack had sent other students to IUP, so he encouraged me to apply.”

When Dr. Thomas visited the campus to explore study in the short-term program, the English Department chairperson at that time, Jim Gray, asked him what it would take to have him come to IUP full-time and, in order to encourage him, arranged an assistantship and a fellowship.

“I was amazed,” Dr. Thomas said. “I remember thinking, ‘They’re making me an offer!’”

With the encouragement of his dean at South Carolina State, who facilitated a leave of absence, he began studying full-time in Indiana.

“I had a great time at IUP,” Dr. Thomas said. His wife, Linda, came with him to Pennsylvania and worked two jobs to help support their family.

“I returned the favor,” Dr. Thomas said. “Once I finished, I put her through school.”

An avid reader, Dr. Thomas is completing the book Within These Gates, which deals with blacks in higher education, and has written numerous scholarly articles, many exploring African Americans in literature.

“The place where I grew up, Lowndes County, was right between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama,” Dr. Thomas said, “so the civil rights march came right through our county,” which greatly influenced his future work.

After leaving South Carolina State in 1990, Dr. Thomas was employed in various capacities at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne and Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro before going to Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois, in 2008.

After serving as the provost and academic vice president, he was named president of the university in July 2011.

Dr. Thomas and his wife have two sons, Patrick, a senior at Western Illinois University, and Darius, a high school senior.

During his inaugural address as the new president of Western Illinois University, he mentioned several members of his family:

“I especially want to thank my wife, Linda, and our sons, Patrick and Darius. I am very excited that my father is here today, Mr. Clinton Thomas Sr., and my sister, the Honorable Mayor Helen Thomas Bell, and all of my other family members and friends who have traveled a great distance to be here today.

“I want to dedicate this address in honor of my mother, who is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and could not be with us today. I also want to acknowledge my dear brother, Mr. Marshall Clifford Thomas, who is not here because he had to stay home to be by my mother’s bedside.”

“I know my parents are proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Dr. Thomas said. He is dedicating his new book to his mother, Eleanor Thomas.

The dedication reads, “Mom, I did what you told me to do.”

Profile published on 6/11/13

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