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Philanthropy is a Thomas family tradition

Generations of this native Gary family have touched many facets of IU Northwest

Tuesday Mar 11, 2014

Back in the 1950s, when Ray Thomas served as a trustee of Indiana University, the school moved into Northwest Indiana with the establishment of the “Gary Center.” Administrators had aptly envisioned the extension would one day become a four-year college.

“My dad was mainly responsible for IU Northwest being where it is,” said Joseph Thomas, son of the late trustee. “He insisted it should be in Gary and not Hammond or Munster. He put on quite a campaign to have it located there.”

Through the years, the Thomas family, natives to Gary, remained partial to IU. Joseph graduated with honors from IU Bloomington with a business degree before going on to Harvard Law School, where he graduated cum laude.

After a stint in the Air Force, Joseph returned home to Gary and became a faculty member at IU Northwest, teaching business law and accounting. Two of the Thomas daughters are alumni of IU as well.

Now the patriarch of the Thomas family, Joseph, 85, is carrying on the family tradition of supporting IU Northwest. Joseph’s parents had left behind a small fund to be used for scholarships. Joseph supplemented it and named it in his late parents’ honor. To date, the Ray C. and Josephine K. Thomas Scholarship, which Joseph continues to fund annually, has assisted scores of students over the past 40 years.

At the time the scholarship was established, Joseph was practicing law in Gary. One of his clients, a self-made businessman, had expressed in his will a desire to set up a perpetual trust fund to be used for services for the elderly. As the trustee for the Byron A. Root Memorial Trust Fund, Joseph turned over the income of the fund to IU Northwest so it could use its resources to fulfill this charge. This fund, and the services that IU Northwest provides to the elderly, continue today.

Joseph and his wife Joanna have retired to Boynton Beach, Florida, but Gary will always be home to Joseph. When it comes to philanthropy, he prefers to give back to his home community and he’s made education the sole beneficiary.

“The future of this country lies in having our population educated,” Joseph said. “There are a lot of wonderful charitable causes and you have to pick an area where you feel you have some connection or expertise. This is an area that I am very interested in. My family members have been school teachers from my grandparents all the way up. This is what I like to do.”

The Ray C. and Josephine K. Thomas Scholarship is reserved for the highest achievers, which reflects Joseph’s own standards. In 1951, when he graduated from IU’s Kelley School of Business, he earned the highest score in the state for the certified public accountant (CPA) exam. As a faculty member, he brought with him that same high standard of excellence and expected nothing less from his students.

He recalled the day he was invited to join the faculty at IU Northwest.

“I said I would do this on one condition. I wanted to make the standards in accounting here at IU Northwest the same as they are on the main campus. In other words, I didn’t want this to be a place where somebody who couldn’t make the grades at the main IU campus so they came up here,” Joseph said.

He is proud to say that those high standards were upheld back then and they remain in place today.

“The scholastic standing of IU Northwest is as good as many major schools throughout the country,” Joseph said.

In November, IU Northwest recognized the Thomases for their longtime support with the Chancellor’s Medallion, the highest honor bestowed upon individuals who have rendered distinguished service to the University and community.

The honor is reserved for those whose longstanding philanthropy and commitment to IU Northwest have resulted in significant impact for a great many people, like the Thomas scholarship. For the 40 years the scholarship has been in existence, its eligibility standards have remained academically uncompromising, something that remains of utmost importance to Joseph. With his continued philanthropy, Joseph wants to ensure excellence at Northwest Indiana’s IU campus, in particular.

“We are an Indiana family all the way,” Joseph said. “After all the opportunities that IU and IU Northwest have provided for my own family and countless others, I am thrilled that I am able to pay it forward and endow a scholarship that will enable students in Northwest Indiana the opportunity to go to college for many years to come.”

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