Tell us about your Dickinson experience.
I was a student from 1962 to 1965. I graduated early not because I was smart, but because I was in love; my girlfriend was a class or two ahead of me. (Of course, in the spring of 1965, my girlfriend and I broke up.) My world at Dickinson revolved around the Kappa Sigma fraternity, classes and girls, and I majored in philosophy and religion. At that time, as Dean George Allen could attest, this program was as strong as any other philosophy and religion department anywhere, including the Ivy League schools. It was only through the kindness and patience of Dean Allen, who passed my extra-credit logic paper, that I scraped through Dickinson with the barest of “B” margins.
What is your favorite memory from your time at Dickinson?
What is “my time at Dickinson”? It wasn’t just in the ‘60s. Valerie and me spending my 50th reunion in 2016 with the Phi Ep crowd was so much fun. It is a memory we would not trade for the world, along with the friendship of Dickinson staff stalwarts Brooke and Andrea.
Tell us a little about your professional path.
My 45-year career in development eventually took me to the post of senior vice president at one of the largest and most visible nonprofits in the galaxy, the American Red Cross, when Elizabeth Dole was the organization’s president.
Valerie and I now have our own consulting firm, John Wm. Thomas Consulting LLC, which has been going strong, officially, since 2008, and before that, without the LLC, for many more years. We love working together, helping nonprofits learn how to improve their philanthropic revenue while growing a culture which treasures giving and receiving.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I love traveling and just being with Valerie and our friends. However, when I am not working or hanging out, I still love to run trails in and around Lexington, Virginia, although my days of competing to win my age group are a few years behind me. I love to ski. I had 23 great days on the snow in 2021 and hope for more days of turns on the steep stuff in 2022.
What brought you to Dickinson?
It was kind of a foregone conclusion that my twin brother and I would end up at Dickinson. We had returned to the States from our high school in Argentia, Newfoundland, a year earlier, completed our senior year of high school in Springfield, Pennsylvania, and applied to only one college, Dickinson.
We followed in the footsteps of my Dad, George, class of ’39; and his brother, Bill, class of ’40. There was also an element of nostalgia: We’d spent our fifth-grade year living in Carlisle while Dad was overseas serving as USN chaplain to a Marines outfit in Japan. Dickinson’s president at the time, Bill Edel, had been a Navy chaplain colleague of Dad’s, and so the President’s House, the bio lab (where we got free frogs) and the campus were, collectively, a second home. Matriculating at Dickinson was a homecoming in a sense.
How has Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts education helped you?
Dickinson, and especially my philosophy/religion major, taught me to think critically. I also learned to think on my feet. I learned to appreciate differing—and more thoughtful—viewpoints. I started learning how to be. I began to grow up—an evolution that continues to this day. I am still working at it. But I am making progress, thanks to a solid start at Dickinson.
Earlier in my career and life, it might have seemed like no dots connected from my college days, my major or even my job as assistant in the athletics department (I got to know dirty uniforms very well!) to what ultimately became my lifelong career in philanthropy. However, looking at all the dots that make up a life and career from the perspective of being 55 years removed from Dickinson, I can now see how Dickinson was essential to who and how I became. My only regret is that I did not get more out of my Dickinson education, a lament that many graduates might echo.
What inspired your gift to Dickinson?
For over half a century, my life has been dedicated to philanthropy, to helping others find meaning in giving and to helping universities and academic medical centers do a better job of raising funds that may, when done well, transform each institution. I can’t preach this and not do this. We support our son’s schools, our clients, local nonprofits and Dickinson. It is encouraging to see how our class gives back through their philanthropy toward the college. But our class can do better at this, and that is why I help our class leaders promote class of ’66 philanthropy in all of its forms.
What do you hope your gift will do for fellow Dickinsonians?
Since it is not large, I hope that it will simply support operations as an unrestricted gift.
Why do you think it's important to give back to Dickinson?
Giving back is not a one-dimensional activity. We use the term “giving back” as a euphemism for giving money. But that is only one part of it. To me, giving back to Dickinson means volunteering time, helping students find their career paths, encouraging classmates to give, mentoring colleagues in college advancement, staying in touch with a few friends from my Dickinson days and promoting the college (I often wear my Dickinson track and field T-shirt when running trails and racing). I especially enjoy it when prospective students let me know that Dickinson is their preferred choice, and I can answer some questions or direct them to a reliable source of information.
What advice would you give to today’s students?
Relax. Be easy on yourself. Life ahead is full of successes and failures. Don’t worry if you haven’t planned everything out. “Love the moment, and the energy of that moment will spread beyond all boundaries,” said Sister Corita, who also said: “Damn everything but the circus.”
Published November 9, 2021