By NJ Clausen
Happy New Year to all! Wishing you health and happiness in 2023. This month I have the pleasure of introducing you to a good-hearted person and one of my favorite people…. Richard Thomas.
One of four children, Richard was the third born and raised south of Miami, Florida. Compared to many of their friends, they had more freedom and more adventures. Richard described going across bridges and to beaches on bicycle trips with his youngest brother, exploring areas within a 10-mile radius. With a chuckle he added that he did not know if his parents would have approved… if they had known. Richard further noted that these experiences were beneficial because they developed a lot of confidence. Richard enjoyed being outdoors and his favorite trips were the ones the two brothers made to the beach. Richard also fondly remembers a zoo that was free and how they would park their bikes and wander around the zoo all day.
In high school, Richard played football for 4 years, did track his last 2 years, and he was also in the chess club. Richard and his siblings attended private school and it was only in his last 2 years that a few girls came to his high school, with 7 girls graduating in his class of under 100 students.
After high school, Richard went to a community college in Miami and got his Associates Degree in Pre-Forestry. He planned to take a year off to work, but first went up to rural Wisconsin to visit his sister. There he fell in love with the area, describing it as the complete opposite of where he had grown up. Richard attended college up there and played tight end on their football team for only one year, as he was also working and studying. One of the first jobs he procured was through a state grant as a geological assistant with the geology department. The area was noted for their fossil finds and landowners of rock quarries would allow the university to gather fossils. Richard would bring them back to the university and using a diamond bit saw, he would cut them and then put them into the university’s collection. It was fun, a part of his chosen field, and helped with tuition costs. When the grant ended, Richard waited on and bussed tables, was a lab assistant and did what had to be done to graduate without student debt. Although Richard had thought to graduate with a degree in biology, doing something in wildlife or forestry, his interactions with neighborhood kids had parents encouraging him to become an educator. He started taking education classes which eventually led him to teaching biology at his old high school in Miami, which was now fully integrated with boys and girls. Richard also coached the girls basketball team, leading them to the highest winning percentage – with a 21-4 record – of any basketball team at that school.
Richard decided to continue his education, and attended grad school at Wake Forest, where he graduated with an MS in Biology. While still in school, Richard took a summer job at a primate research facility and met lab technician Donna. They married and raised 4 children together in Kernersville, honoring the promise Richard made that he would not relocate the family. Several years later he also earned his PhD in Science Education at UNCG, with a doctoral dissertation on “Promoting Ecological Consciousness in the Classroom”, with the subtitle ‘A Search for Spiritual Union’– an experience which fundamentally changed him and the way he taught. Richard recalls a note left by a student who had been in a very dark place. Noticing that something was off with this student, Richard took the student aside to talk with, listen to, and assure this student that he cared. In the note he learned the time spent had prevented an irrevocable act. For Richard, some of the greatest rewards of teaching include making a difference in the life of someone and making connections. In addition to teaching high school students, Richard also coached track and basketball, creating a bond outside the academics. He also coached soccer at the recreation level.
After 28 years, Richard’s beloved Donna departed this world. He shared that his faith kept him going during the painful four years following her passing. Richard never thought to remarry; however, his colleague Rhonda taught him to love again, and he feels blessed by two marriages. He also added that no matter how bad things get, if you keep an open heart and you are willing to let some things go, you can start a new life.
Richard wishes all the best of New Years to family, friends, neighbors and students… and to his students, he reminds them not to be afraid to follow their dreams.