The Rev. John William Thomas, 78, of Lexington peacefully departed this world Oct. 9 in the warm embrace of his beloved wife, Valerie, surrounded by his loving family. A longtime fundraising professional, he raised more than $1 billion for a wide variety of causes during his career.

Born Dec. 4, 1944, in Oakland, Calif., to Navy Chaplain George Earl Thomas Sr., and violinist Carmel Madeline (Desantis) Thomas, John credited their 17 moves, courtesy of the U.S. Navy, with his ability to connect easily and genuinely with others. He proudly identified as a “Navy Brat.” Guam, Chincoteague, Brunswick, Maine; Cape May, N.J.; and the naval base at Argentia, Newfoundland, were a few of his favorite locations.

In 1962, upon graduating from Springfield High School in Pennsylvania, John matriculated to the Dickinson College class of 1966. He followed a degree in philosophy with a master of divinity degree from New York’s Union Theological Seminary in 1969. Later he continued advanced studies in Counseling Psychology at the University of Miami.

An intellectual with a witty, sometimes irreverent, sense of humor, John was a lifetime learner with interests that included history (particularly naval history), biographies of baseball players and historical figures, and gaining a deeper understanding of various religions. One of John’s favorite days of the year was Dec. 4, his birthday. He made sure that everyone he ever met knew the date of his birth. Needless to say, he received many greetings and well wishes each year.

John’s passions were many. His biggest passion was his love for Valerie. John and Valerie married in 1984, and for 26 years resided in Alexandria, where they welcomed and raised their son, Parker. In 2017 they moved to Lexington, where they restored “The Keep,” an 1891 Queen Anne Victorian home in the historic district. John loved living in a college town within walking distance to almost everything. The community welcomed them warmly, and Lexington became home for them. He shared his love and devotion for Valerie with everyone everywhere, at every opportunity. A very close second was his immense love for his family.

John was an athlete who learned to ski at age 30 and quickly became an expert who happily would have traveled the world to be able to ski year-round. Running was another passion. John completed 22 marathons with a personal record of 3:07, which he proudly shared with all who would listen. His level of fitness earned him the name of Buff Daddy from his children, and he maintained his workouts until the end, doing countless pushups, pull-ups, and burpees. He loved baseball (particularly the Phillies) and University of Miami football. A “U” flag could be seen flying from the front porch every game day.

Standing at his peak height of 5’ 8” with a runner’s physique, John always looked you right in the eye and made you feel as if you were the most important person in the room. He had an adventurous spirit, a zeal for life and relentless optimism. John and Valerie took every opportunity to travel and experience other cultures and countries, as well as most ski resorts. John had a unique ability to make genuine connections with just about everyone. He volunteered his time and talents, serving on boards, as a hospice chaplain, and a pro-bono fundraising coach to grassroots and faith organizations. During his “professional dress” phase, John had a deep affection for ties, particularly those with Repp stripes, preferably from Brooks Brothers. Music, too, was an integral part of his life. Cruising with the top down in his Miata, affectionately known as Daisy, John would crank up Motown classics, oldies, and tunes by Lionel Richie. He had an uncanny ability to identify and share the perfect song for any occasion or sentiment with friends and family. He also had a deep appreciation for classical music and could effortlessly recognize the composer regardless of the piece. He was generous with his love, his positivity and encouragement, his wit and charisma, his philanthropy, and his faith.

John’s giving nature and love for others was on display throughout his long and varied career. During his time in New York City, John worked at Wiltwyck School for Boys and in the Neighborhood Youth Corps in Brooklyn. He took great pride in his activism and his commitment to serving the community during tumultuous times, notably after the tragic assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1969, John joined Christ United Methodist Church in New Rochelle, N.Y., as associate minister. A year later, he departed from that position and transitioned into the role of social worker, working with youths involved in gangs and drug-related activities in Philadelphia. In this capacity, he introduced innovative vocational guidance initiatives and initiated a group therapy program tailored to adolescent boys. In 1971, John worked as community coordinator for North Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Rochelle, N.Y.

It was during this early part of his career that John discovered his love for fundraising. John was an energetic force for good with high standards and a contagious enthusiasm for life. He found great joy in offering opportunities for individuals to make a meaningful impact with their philanthropic support to the charitable causes that resonated with their beliefs.

The University of Miami recognized John’s potential and hired him to direct community outreach and subsequently advanced him to associate dean for development for the Medical School, launching his career in development and earning a football fan for life. From there, John went to work for the University of Pennsylvania, where, as he loved to say, “I left as I arrived, fired with enthusiasm.” New England Medical Center quickly offered him a position, where he excelled. John believed strongly in giving back to the field. He freely shared his expertise and wisdom and was a sought-after speaker and adviser. His reputation brought him to the attention of the American Red Cross, where he was brought on as Elizabeth Dole’s first senior vice president of development, raising more than $200 million for disaster relief and blood services. Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., then recruited him as executive vice president of development heading the Children’s Hospital Foundation, where he and his staff completed two campaigns and began a third, raising over $500 million. Retirement in 2008 meant launching John Wm Thomas Consulting, LLC to provide coaching and strategic planning expertise with many more nonprofit organizations nationally and internationally.

Although his career saw John move away from the church into other worthy pursuits, he maintained his ordination and his faith, sharing it with congregations as an occasional guest minister, and performing the weddings of many close friends and family.

In October 2022, John was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Together, John and Valerie relentlessly battled this aggressive disease. John’s physical, emotional and spiritual fitness were instrumental in his ability to tolerate the radiation and chemotherapy treatments and stave off the progression of the cancer as long as possible. His openness, positivity and zest for life inspired the many who loved and supported him. He leaves a legacy of love, joie de vivre, intelligence and integrity.

John is survived by the love of his life, Valerie (Hatch) Thomas and son Parker Thomas. He is also survived by daughters from his prior marriage, Colby Strickland (Matt) and Merribeth Thomas; six grandchildren and a twin brother, George Thomas, Jr.

A service will be held at 10 a.m. Dec. 2 at Trinity United Methodist, 147 South Main Street, Lexington, Virginia 24450. A celebration of life will follow the service.

The family requests those who wish to express sympathy to consider donating to the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University or ConnectionsPlus Healthcare + Hospice in Lexington in John’s name. N-G

The News-Gazette

The News-Gazette Corp.
P.O. Box 1153
Lexington, VA 24450
(540) 463-3113

Email Us

Facebook Twitter

Latest articles