TUSCALOOSA | Dr. Joab Thomas, president emeritus of The University of Alabama and Penn State University and former chancellor of North Carolina State University, died Monday March 3 at Hospice of West Alabama. He was 81.
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The 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.
Dr. 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, Georgia.; and 13 grandchildren: Meredith and Laura McGee; Kieren, Lia and Olivia Thomas; Luke, Marly, Stella and Adam Bolton; Caroline, Emily, Allison and Philip Doherty.
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.
A native of Tuscaloosa County, Dr. 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. He is remembered as a student-centered academic leader and a champion of undergraduate research who spearheaded the growth of world-class honors programs and led numerous highly successful economic development initiatives.
Born in Holt, Thomas grew up in 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.
Promoted to associate professor and then professor of biology, Thomas balanced his teaching and research responsibilities with administrative positions of increasing stature. He served as assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences on two occasions before being named dean for student development, later known as dean of students, in 1969. He was named vice president for student affairs in 1974.
Thomas left the Capstone in 1976 to serve as the ninth chancellor of North Carolina State University. Under his leadership, 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 Gov. 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.
Joab Thomas was named president of The University of Alabama in 1981. As president for the next 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Published in Tuscaloosa News from Mar. 4 to Mar. 5, 2014