On Tuesday, January 14, 2020, after a 20-month battle with ovarian cancer, Ferrum College’s beloved retired Professor of Environmental Science Carolyn Lee Thomas passed away. She was four days shy of her seventy-second birthday, and had just enjoyed a long weekend with her family.
“We are heartbroken over the death of Carolyn Thomas, who was for so many of us a model of fierce intellect, creative imagination, and personal courage. She had a way of exciting curiosity in her students and of inviting us all to be better people. Her fingerprints are on all of our lives–thousands of us–and we will miss her dearly,” said President David L. Johns.
Born on January 18, 1948 in Orlando, FL, Thomas knew from an early age that she was happiest in nature. She received her Bachelor of Science in biology from Florida Southern College and went on to earn a Master of Science in zoology from the University of Georgia. Thomas then received her Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Virginia Tech.
In 1974, she met her soulmate Bob Pohlad when she enrolled at the University of Central Florida to begin work on her master’s degree. Pohlad was working as the teaching assistant in Thomas’s cytogenetics class while completing graduate work at the University. He helped Thomas with her microscope projects and labs. “We just hit it off,” Pohlad explained. “She was someone who loved to travel as I did, was a little bit hippie in her sandals and long hair, and was a free spirit that I loved talking to. We spent hours talking about everything including our common upbringing.” The pair found many similarities in their lives, including losing their fathers as young teenagers, loving sports, and filling leadership roles – Thomas as president of her ZTA sorority and Pohlad as president of his youth group and biology club.
Thomas and Pohlad were forced to begin a long-distance relationship after Pohlad was accepted into the University of Georgia’s doctorate program. The couple wrote to each other daily and traveled back and forth from Florida to Georgia as often as possible. They couldn’t stand being apart any longer and threw a surprise wedding in March 1975 at Thomas’s homeplace on Lake Howell in Maitland, FL. Many of the guests were unaware they were coming to a wedding ceremony until the minister arrived. “We were married outside under the trees on the lake,” recalled Pohlad. “After the wedding ceremony, we played flag football and they threw us in the lake. I remember we left town that evening to head to the beach for our honeymoon one-night stay and couldn’t find a place, and ended up at a motel back in town.”
In 1978, the Pohlad-Thomas couple found themselves at Ferrum College when Pohlad was hired as a professor of biology and horticulture. Thomas taught middle school science for a year but quickly accepted a position teaching environmental science at Ferrum College in 1979, where she and Pohlad remained as professors for the next 41 years. They both retired in May 2019. Once asked in a 2018 interview how she and Pohlad were able to work for so long at not only the same college but in the same department with offices next door to each other, she answered: “It works because we communicate. We have to understand each other staying up late, working with students. We have to keep talking, although we don’t always agree. The advantage is that we both have these responsibilities together, so we understand them.”
In addition to their budding careers at Ferrum College and Thomas’s continued pursuit of graduate work, the couple became parents when their son Chris was born in November 1979. In December 1984, their second son Tim was born. Thomas’s legacy now lives on in her two sons, their wives, and her four grandchildren.
At Ferrum College, Thomas served as Science Camp director for many years. She was also a founding member of the Smith Mountain Lake Water Quality Project, which she directed for 32 years, leading a team of Ferrum College faculty and students in conjunction with the Smith Mountain Lake Association to analyze the lake’s water quality during the summer months.
“She was as passionate about water quality, environmental science, the natural world, and women in science on the day she retired as her first day 41 years ago when she began teaching,” wrote Ferrum College’s Associate Professor of Environmental Science Delia Heck in an email. Heck taught alongside Thomas and worked with her on the Water Quality Project.
Thomas was diagnosed with ovarian cancer stage IV in May 2018. During treatment, she remained positive and active, continuing as often as possible with her 50-year habit of walking multiple miles a day. “I just pushed through the pain,” Thomas said in the same 2018 interview. “I derive my spirit from friends and family. I heal better through them. But I’m also a scientist, so I believe in medication and treatment.”
Thomas’s work will not be soon forgotten. In addition to the thousands of lives she touched, Thomas and Pohlad jointly received the Ecological Society of America’s Eugene P. Odum Award for Excellence in Ecological Education in 2016. Thomas also received the Melvin Johnston Award from the Smith Mountain Lake Association for her work on the Water Quality Project.
Thomas and Pohlad were married for nearly 45 years. They spent their lives teaching and traveling, visiting all 50 states and touring the Galapagos Islands in 2017. In 2003, the professors traveled with three Ferrum College students to Malawi, Africa to set up water quality equipment and teach Malawian scientists how to use it. Recent adventures led Thomas, Pohlad, and Ferrum College Experiential term (E-term) students to distant locations such as the Virgin Islands and Ireland. This past summer, the couple road-tripped it out west in an RV and dubbed the trip “Bob and Carolyn’s Excellent Adventure.”
“She was most happy in the lab, in the field or forest, on or in the water, helping students discover and learn about the amazing planet Earth,” wrote Heck. “It was an honor and privilege to work with her, be mentored and taught by her, and to serve by her side in pursuit of truth, knowledge, and inspiration.”
The Celebration of Life for Dr. Carolyn Thomas, a member of St. Peters In the Mountains, Callaway, VA, was held on Sunday, January 26, 2020, in Ferrum College’s Vaughn Chapel and drew hundreds in attendance. Please see this Spotify slide show, set to some of her favorite songs, honoring her memory.
In lieu of flowers, the Thomas and Pohlad families request individuals make a gift to the Carolyn Thomas Memorial Fund at Ferrum College. Donations will support students in the College’s Division of Natural Sciences at: http://bit.ly/CarolynThomasFund.