Former UA, Penn State president dies

Published 5:27 pm Monday, March 3, 2014

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Dr. Joab Thomas, president emeritus of both The University of Alabama and The Pennsylvania State University and former chancellor of North Carolina State University, died Monday, March 3 in Tuscaloosa. He was 81.

A native of Tuscaloosa County, Ala., Thomas was a world-renowned botanist and a three-time graduate of Harvard University. His legendary career in higher education included signal recognition from the universities and communities where he served with distinction.

“From his days as a teaching fellow at Harvard to his tenure at the helm of three of America’s premier public universities, Joab Thomas was at the forefront as a leader in higher education,” said Dr. Robert Witt, chancellor of The University of Alabama System. “His research focus and emphasis on excellence inspired all of us who were fortunate to follow in his footsteps. Sandee and I are saddened by his loss and extend our thoughts and prayers to Marly and the entire Thomas family.”

Joab Thomas’s tenure at the Capstone began in 1961 when he joined the biology department as an assistant professor, ascending through the ranks to become assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in the mid-1960s. Later named dean of student development and vice president for student affairs, he left the University in 1976 to become the ninth chancellor of North Carolina State University, a position he held for six years.

Under his leadership at N.C. State, the School of Veterinary Medicine and the Center for Economic and Business Studies were established. He oversaw the establishment of the North Carolina Japan Center by North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt. The Institute for Transportation Research and Education, an inter-institutional center of the University of North Carolina system, was chartered by the North Carolina General Assembly during his tenure. Under his watch, student enrollment increased by 25 percent, numerous buildings were constructed, and the Caldwell Fellows scholarship program was established.

“As Chancellor at N.C. State, Dr. Thomas was a wonderful listener and a wise leader who solicited conversations with and opinions from all stakeholders of the University – students, faculty, athletic boosters and alumni alike,” remembers former Trustee Tom Hendrickson who was president of the student government association during the Thomas administration. “As a mentor and friend to me and many others, Joab led by example with patience and wisdom and with an amazing intellect that was matched by his great sense of humor and love for his family. We are saddened by his loss, but celebrate his many accomplishments that have made this world a better place.”

Thomas returned home in 1981 to become president of The University of Alabama, a position he held for seven years. He is credited with tripling research funding, leading a major fund-raising campaign, raising admission and curriculum standards, building economic development initiatives that saved local jobs and improving relations with the state legislature, resulting in increased state funding for the University. He established a University-wide honors program and initiated the Presidential Scholars program to help recruit top students to UA

“Dr. Thomas had a pivotal impact on The University of Alabama at a critical time in our history. His commitment to enhancing academic excellence, supporting and encouraging faculty research, and promoting economic development efforts in West Alabama and throughout the state launched the University on a path that we continue to follow in many ways today,” UA President Judy Bonner said.

Two years after resigning as president at UA in 1988 and returning to the faculty, Thomas accepted the presidency at Penn State. There, as at UA, he was known for his commitment to high academic standards and to enhancing the students’ experience. He initiated the largest building program in the university’s history and was instrumental in strengthening undergraduate education. He also oversaw Penn State’s entry into the Big 10 athletic conference.

Thomas is remembered at Penn State for his strong leadership in academics and spearheading in the growth of the university. “Joab Thomas was a brilliant scholar, a visionary leader and a true gentleman,” said Penn State President Rodney Erickson. “His commitment to students was legendary, and he played a critical role in building Penn State into an internationally ranked university. We were very fortunate to have Joab’s leadership, dedication and goodwill, and he will be greatly missed.

“Joab Thomas was a transformational leader in higher education who was respected around the world,” said Dr. Malcolm Portera, chancellor emeritus of The University of Alabama System, who served as executive assistant to the president during Thomas’ presidency at UA. “He understood very clearly that a university must be student centered to achieve its mission, and students were always his highest priority. He championed undergraduate research, built blue-ribbon honors programs, and inspired faculty to be world-class. All of us who had the privilege to work with Joab Thomas owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Born in Holt, Thomas grew up in nearby Russellville where his father was superintendent of schools and his mother taught music. A gifted athlete as well as a top scholar, he turned down numerous football scholarship offers to attend Harvard University on a full scholarship. After earning bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in biology there, he returned to his home state in 1961 to join the UA faculty as an assistant professor of biology.

A prolific research scholar and seasoned outdoorsman, Thomas was a co-author of several books, including “Wildflowers of Alabama and Adjoining States,” “Poisonous Plants and Venomous Animals of Alabama and Adjoining States,” and “The Rising South,” as well as numerous articles.

Beginning in 1976, Thomas served on the Board of Directors of three agricultural research centers related to the World Health Organization. The International Potato Center, headquartered in Lima, Peru; ISNAR, headquartered in The Hague, Netherlands, and CGIAR, the International Fund for Agricultural Research in Nairobi, Kenya, were involved in research and outreach to provide better sources of food around the world. He traveled several times each year to meet agricultural authorities and visit research facilities where this work was being done.

He received honorary doctorate degrees from The University of Alabama, North Carolina State University, Stillman College and Tri-State University. Buildings on the campuses of Penn State and North Carolina 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.

Thomas is survived by his wife, the former Marly Allene Dukes; his children: Catherine McGee (Dr. Robert S. McGee, Jr.) of Greensboro, N.C.; David Thomas (Mari Lunde) of Cincinnati, Ohio; Dr. Jennifer Bolton (Timothy J. Bolton) of Tuscaloosa; and Frances Thomas Doherty of Athens, Ga., and 13 grandchildren.

He is also survived by his brother, Dr. James Thomas of Tuscaloosa; and his sister, Lois McGarity, and her husband, the Reverend Owen McGarity, of Austin, Texas. He was predeceased by his parents, Ralph Cage Thomas and Chamintney Stovall Thomas, his sister Carolyn Thomas Stewart and her husband, Edward H. Stewart.

Memorial gifts may be made to the Joab Thomas Scholarship at The University of Alabama, the Joab and Marly Thomas Graduate Fellowship at The Pennsylvania State University, or to The North Carolina State University Foundation.

A memorial service will be at 10 a.m., Thursday, March 6 at Christ Episcopal Church in Tuscaloosa with the Reverend David Meginniss, the Reverend Dr. Catherine Collier and the Reverend James Lee Winter officiating. Visitation and reception will follow the service in Randall Hall.