The Touch of the Master's Hand
Walking across the quad from Johnston to Jackson, dressed in a worn brown corduroy blazer and faded green sport shirt with a tie that appears short for his height, Dr. William Thomas sees one of his brightest students, "Why hello there Professor Gilmartin," he says, with a tip of his plaid feathered-hat. Dr. Thomas is always in the habit of calling his students professors. "So good to see you today young man," he adds with a warm smile.
"He's the most giving person I know," said senior Jessica Dreiman. "I don't think he's bought anything new for himself in 20 years, but he's constantly giving to students," she adds.
Dr. William Thomas, professor emeritus of philosophy and religion, born in Harrisonburg, taught at JMU from 1971 to 1999. Taking students out to lunch and dinner to get to know them better is one of his favorite things to do. During his last semester, Dr. Thomas offered to take any student out to dinner, who was willing to read the book, The Kingdom of God, outside of class. He bought numerous copies of the book, inscribed the inside cover with a personal message, and passed them out to the 10 students who volunteered. A month latter, he treated the entire group to dinner at the Joshua Wilton House to discuss the book.
"He invested his personal time and finances to give us the opportunity to engage in thoughtful conversation, critical thinking and experience fine dining. None of us had ever been to the Joshua Wilton House before this class," says senior Deidre Coales.
"My biggest memory of Dr. Thomas was when I was taking his major religious thinkers class…it had like 8 or 9 books, and I was completely broke that semester," says Rick Gilmartin. "There was no way that I could afford them, so I thought I would have to drop the class. I approached him and talked to him about it and said, ‘There's no way I can afford all these books, are they in the library? Can I check them out?' He looked at me and said, ‘Why no young man.' He found out why I couldn't afford the books, then he took me to the bookstore and he bought all the books that I needed for the class. It was one of the best classes I've taken. He gave me a chance to learn without being restricted by financial restrictions that I had been under."
Whether picking up a new bestseller for one of his students at Books-a-Million or watching one of them play in a band on the Commons, Dr. Thomas goes to great lengths to interact with students outside of class.
"My hope is that if I can meet students in a neutral environment, outside of the classroom, then maybe I can step out of the role of professor and just become another human being who they can talk with," said Dr. Thomas.
According to his students, Dr. Thomas' greatest gift is the ability to see potential in every student. "It's almost overwhelming. He is so encouraging. He made me see that the mind I have is good one," said Gilmartin.
Matt Lozano agreed, "As soon as he finds something that you are interested in, he uses it as a catalyst for conversation."
Dr. Thomas attributes his ability to relate to every student to the fact that every student is talented. "It's working with exceptionally talented young people that has kept me teaching at JMU for so long," said Dr. Thomas. In addition to seeing potential in each student, he strives to discover what interests him or her.
"Dr. Thomas found out that I saw the musical Rent over Spring Break, so he brought me the opera La Bohemia. Later he took my boyfriend and I out to brunch at the Sheraton to discuss what we thought of it. This was my first exposure to opera," said Dreiman.
After dinner at the Joshua Wilton House, 10 of his students presented Dr. Thomas with the poem, The Touch of a Master's Hand. The poem describes an old beaten violin that was going to be auctioned off for just a few dollars. Before the violin could be sold for so much less that it's value, the owner dusts it off and plays a beautiful tune on the old violin. After its worth has been realized, the violin auctioned off for $100, then $200. As a professor, Dr. Thomas dusts off old violins and plays a new song on them.
"Dr. Thomas is really a great man, a joy to be around," says David Fly. "He's just a fun person to be with. Every time I see him he always tells me what a joy it is to see me, even if he's seen me the day before. He genuinely enjoys being with his students. Any time he did see me, he would take me out to buy a book or take me to dinner. He is just that invested in his students as a friend and mentor."