Mr. Thomas, Part 1
Wed, 03/31/2021 - 3:07pm admin
If you attended school in Willow Springs in the 1950s and 1960s, chances are you experienced Fred Thomas in some fashion. In my mind’s eye, I still see him as the WSHS principal, a sixty-something man with mostly gray hair, never perfectly combed unless he was sporting a flattop, wearing a rumpled brown suit, as a requirement of the job and not by preference.
I remember the wry smile and twinkle in his eye that let you know he was aware of the latest shenanigan afoot—a proverbial Dutch uncle who could spot a fib before it passed the lips of a squirming student.
Mr. Thomas joined the school faculty as an eighth-grade teacher and elementary principal in 1949, and assumed duties as high school principal in 1957, along with teaching World Geography. He cast a long shadow over the Willow School system, but civic and business activities occupied his “spare” time. He served as Rotary Club president in 1963 and owned a grocery store in Hutton Valley.
Classmate Peggy Henry Bradford (WSHS, 1965) remembers the Hutton Valley store well. Not surprisingly, since Mr. Thomas married her father’s sister, Violet Henry Thomas. She says, “The country store in Hutton Valley, one with a big stove and long bench beside it, was a gathering place for many in the area. I spent a lot of time with my Aunt Violet after my mother went to work at the baby shoe factory in Willow Springs. It was my drop-off and pick-up place.”
When he taught the 8th grade, Mr. Thomas is remembered fondly by former students for reading stories to them. John Tandy (WSHS, 1960) says, “Mr. Thomas was wonderful closing out the classroom day reading the class a classic book. Stopping for moments to ask questions to the class like, ‘Now why do you think Tom Sawyer did that?’” With four children of his own, he, no doubt, had considerable experience reading to kids. By the time I was in high school, he had 7 grandchildren.
But woe to the student who tried to take advantage of his good nature. He could be a formidable nemesis, and when it came to discipline, he was not a “respecter of persons.” Popular student or ruffian, he meted out punishment equally.
Consider the case of “The Sabotaged Bells” and outstanding student John Tandy. Athlete, musician, and student council president, he is mentioned 12 separate times in the 1960 Willamizzou—one photo covers the entire page. Moreover, his father, Captain John Tandy, commanded Missouri Highway Patrol Troop G and was one of the most respected men in Willow Springs. But first, a backstory from his classmate, Catherine Beavers.
Catherine says when they were seniors the school bell system that signaled the beginning and ending of classes was manipulated by Tandy and Robert Curtis (WSHS, 1960). Today, the motivation is somewhat uncertain, but the intent may have been to shorten one class they didn’t like and lengthen Government class that they did like. “Well, somehow, it wasn’t done right, and everyone got out of school 20 minutes early.”
Catherine didn’t recall any punishment resulting from the prank, but after the graduation ceremony, students still had to go to the principal’s office to pick up their actual diplomas. However, when she went to the office to get her diploma, she says, “Mr. Thomas asked me if I knew who changed the bell. I replied, ‘Yes, sir, I do.’ He asked if I was going to tell him. I replied, ‘No, sir.’ He said, ‘That’s okay, Cathy,’ and started laughing.
Catherine continued her reflection on the incident. “When John and Robert came in to get their diplomas, Mr. Thomas made them stand and stare at the clock for 20 minutes before he gave them their diplomas.”
I checked with culprit John Tandy, and his memory differs slightly but confirms the incident. John says, “The story about the school bell is true unfortunately. The school ‘let out bell’ rang about 20-30 minutes early that day. Why would any student question the ‘get out of class free’ bell? So, everyone began leaving the building.”
John expanded on how the caper developed. “Now that my friend Robert Curtis can’t challenge my recollection of that day, I can tell you the ‘truth.’ Robert approached me in the hallway and said that the principal’s office was vacant, and that we should sneak in and ‘look around.’ We did and he quickly found the big alarm clock bell. Wouldn’t it be funny if school was let out about 10 minutes early! And why not in the minds of two Rock Hudson look-alikes!”
Now, the question remains, was John mostly an innocent bystander or a co-conspirator? In his defense, John says, “Truthfully, I didn’t think Robert would reset the clock, but he did and shot out of the office to get back in class. Try to think how you would feel at that moment in time? I am standing alongside the principal’s desk by myself, looking at the big reset clock on the wall with its glass door open wide. What would anyone do? I ran away from the crime scene and tried to contemplate what would happen next. The rest is history.”
But wait, there’s more. As an afterthought, John added, “I am a little sketchy on the rest of the story, but I do remember being called to the principal’s office several weeks later, where an assistant principal showed Robert and me the old rugged paddle hanging from a wall, and telling me to bend over. I learned quickly why paddles have holes drilled in them.”
In today’s litigious world, an incident like the Sabotaged Bells might well involve lawyers, lawsuits, and hard feelings. Back then, we had our own version of Solomon evenhandedly dispensing justice. It’s odd, but I don’t recall even the ruffians or the boys Mr. Thomas caught skipping school in Doc’s poolhall harboring grudges against him. But that’s the way we were.
A sad afternote. Condolences to the friends and family of Robert Curtis who recently passed away. He sold me numerous items at the Curtis clothing store, and I occasionally worked with him there during the holiday season. Although he was five years older, he always treated me in a friendly and considerate manner. Rest in peace, Robert.