Mr. Thomas- Part 2
Wed, 04/14/2021 - 12:02pm admin
Much of the previous article about Fred Thomas, the longtime teacher and principal in Willow Springs, focused on his good humor and evenhanded disposition. In that light, classmate John McGlynn recalls an incident when Mr. Thomas monitored study hall.
In the 1960s, the study hall occupied the south half of the library room on the second floor of the old high school building. The teacher proctoring the study hall sat at a desk near the entrance to the library at the back of the room. On occasion, Mr. Thomas rode herd on the students there, who often pretended to be studying, as they whispered and passed notes.
On this particular day, John says Mr. Thomas left the room and returned to his office across the hall to attend to other business. In his absence, John and a couple cohorts began singing a ditty they had heard on Chicago radio station WLS: “Better Get Ready for Freddy, Because Freddy is Ready for You.”
A couple refrains by the songsters and laughter from the other students prompted Mr. Thomas to hustle back. John says, “Mr. Thomas tried to act like he was mad, but we could tell he really wasn’t. He finally laughed, too.”
A sidenote about WLS. With FM radio nonexistent in Howell County in the 1960s, radio reception during the day in Willow Springs mainly came from local station KUKU. But pursuant to Federal Communication Commission rules the broadcast signed off at sundown, and teenagers cruising Main Street from the “Little Y” to the Daisy Queen listened to rock and roll and the antics of disc jockey Dick Biondi on 50,000-watt Clear Channel WLS.
Classmate Peggy (Henry) Bradford remembers an incident involving Mr. Thomas when her former grade school in Hutton Valley was about to be closed. “My mother told me if I wanted to visit my old school again, time was growing short. So, my friend Sandy (Merrill) Grogan and I decided to skip school and go to Hutton Valley for the day. We visited the school and stopped by Violet’s [Mr. Thomas’s wife] store on our way home and she gave us some ice cream. We were sitting on the front porch of the store eating our ice cream when Fred came home from school in Willow. He got out of his car and told us in his very serious voice we were going to be removed from the cheerleading squad for skipping school. I knew he was kidding, but Sandy didn’t, and I found out from Sandy many years later how she worried about being kicked off the squad.”
Barbara (Sherrill) Pigg recently shared a surprising occurrence when Mr. Thomas chaperoned the Class of ’64 senior trip to Biloxi, Mississippi. While there, students boarded a ferry to Ship Island to play in the ocean. Barbara says, “We got off the boat and everyone started taking off T-shirts and beach coverups.”
Mr. Thomas approached and was talking to her and Dick Pigg, but turned his back to them and proceeded to take off his shoes, socks, white dress shirt, undershirt, and his pants, while she and Dick stood there in shock. He wore swimming trunks underneath his pants, but I can imagine their surprise. They may have felt the way I did when I saw Mrs. Munford in brush rollers in my mother’s beauty shop.
Barbara said, “He enjoyed the water as much as our classmates. It was so strange to see him undress on the beach. He was so much fun away from the school.”
In general, Mr. Thomas had a measured, and sometimes creative, approach to discipline. During my sophomore year, wearing football jerseys as a fashion statement became popular, but the availability of jerseys was scarce.
As a result of the popular demand, football jerseys began disappearing from the storage closet in the gym, and players could be spotted wearing them after school and on weekends. Coach Robert Lee reported the problem to Mr. Thomas. It wasn’t just a few missing jerseys—the cupboard was practically empty.
Like a territorial governor in the Old West, Mr. Thomas posted a notice of clemency to the “outlaws.” The jerseys could be returned to a cardboard box in his office without punishment, and no questions would be asked. But anyone caught with a jersey after the grace period would be expelled from school. The clemency box that sat next to secretary Naida Protiva’s desk filled up in short order. I turned in mine, and so did everyone I knew who had a purloined jersey.
But some circumstances could try Mr. Thomas’s patience, and his countenance would turn flinty. One such instance occurred when a few student pranksters, who shall remain anonymous, planted a fake bomb in one of the classrooms. No doubt, it was intended as a joke, but the school officials reacted quite seriously. Mr. Thomas called an assembly in the auditorium and characterized the incident as a “bomb scare” and emphasized that it was crime. His demeanor that day was anything but jovial.
Apparently, manipulation of the school bell system was a recurrent problem involving the Tandy boys. John’s younger brother Bill Tandy (WSHS, 1964) also reset the timer causing an early dismissal of classes. This time it sufficiently peeved Mr. Thomas that he expelled Bill and required an appearance of his father, Captain John Tandy, the commanding officer of Highway Patrol Troop G, before Bill would be readmitted. I can’t imagine the Tandy boys’ older sister, the ever-pleasant Helen, committing an infraction of school rules.
Sandy (Merrill) Grogan told me of another cheerleading incident, which I had not heard about, that provoked his ire. Sandy said, “Between our junior and senior year, we decided that we just must have pom poms. Peggy [Henry] brought a magazine to practice that had an ad for just the ones we wanted. They were pretty expensive and a school administrator had to sign the order.”
Obtaining the required signature created a logistical problem. As to how they overcame it, Sandy said, “Well, it was summer so we signed Mr. Thomas's name and planned to raise the money and have it for him when the merchandise arrived.”
After the pompoms arrived, he summoned the senior cheerleaders into his office. Sandy says, “He was livid. I told him twice that I had worked hours and hours to pay for uniforms and the players didn't even have to buy their shoes. Furthermore, we would gladly send them back and wear regular school clothes to ballgames in the future. He calmed down as I got worked up. He said take the pom poms with us and make plans to pay for them.” But according to Sandy, that was the last they heard about the matter.
While playing football my senior year, I sustained a major knee injury that required surgery in Springfield. In the operating room, a nurse remarked that I was from Willow Springs and asked if I knew Mr. Thomas. I told her that I did, and she said, “I’ll bet he is a pretty mean guy.” And I said, “Oh, no. I like Mr. Thomas.” She said, “That’s good, because he’s my father.” For the record, the nurse was his daughter Wanda. At the time, I was not aware he had a daughter, other than Sharon (WSHS, 1961).
Paraphrasing a description of Professor Dumbledore from Harry Potter, Fred Thomas was not proud or vain and could find value in every student, and enriched our lives.