Prolific and insightful writer, inspiring educator and visionary college president Ronald R. Thomas, 74, departed this life for his next great adventure on April 17. He passed peacefully at the home he shared on Vashon, WA, with his beloved wife and partner in life, Dr. Mary (Domingo) Thomas and their faithful and mischievous feline companion, Finn.
Ron approached the world and his work with the soul of a poet and a keen ability to connect people to ideas and to each other. He worked for a multimedia production company before embarking on a career in academia, first as an English professor at the University of Chicago (1982- 90), then as a fellow in the humanities at Harvard University (1991-92) and professor, department chair, vice president and interim president at Trinity College in Connecticut (1991- 2003) before being named the 13th president of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA in 2003.
Ron loved creating, sharing, and hearing stories in every conceivable form—from the Victorian novels he studied to the lyrics of poets Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. He could converse about complex narrative structures, construction blueprints and long-range financial planning as easily as French Wines,Tudor-Gothic architecture and key plot points from Succession. One of his favorite subjects was the people, places and promise of the University of Puget Sound, where he served with distinction until 2016. He transformed the college into a leading liberal arts institution, executing a clear vision with an unmatched enthusiasm, keen intellect and abiding affection. Key accomplishments include strengthening the university’s connections to generations of accomplished alumni and to the City of Tacoma, building critical infrastructure and educational resources, and securing the support of donors and friends to bring to fruition the most successful capital campaign in the university’s history.
The son of Doris R. and Robert L. Thomas, Ron was born in Orange, NJ; grew up on the boardwalks of Ocean Grove; and graduated from Neptune High School in 1967. He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of arts in English Literature from Wheaton College (Illinois) in 1971, followed by a master of arts (1978) and PhD (1983) in English and American literature from Brandeis University. He received an honorary doctor of humane letters, honoris causa, from Trinity College in 2002 and from the University of Portland in 2016 for his extraordinary contributions to scholarship and teaching and for national leadership in higher education and public service. At the time of his passing, Thomas served on the governing board of the College of Idaho and had recently completed service on the board of the Vashon Center for the Arts.
Much of Thomas’s scholarly work focuses on the role of the novel from the Victorian Age through Modernity. He authored hundreds of essays, op-eds, speeches and letters, and the books Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious (1990) and Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science (1999).
He is predeceased by his father Robert and Aunt Susanne; and survived by his wife, Mary; mother Doris; sister RuthAnn, brother-in-law Richard, nephew Stephen and his wife Betsy and their children Erin and Seamus; Uncle Richard; Cousin Nancy; niece Antonia, her husband James and their daughter Lucy; and sister-in-law Carolyn.
He will long be remembered by Puget Sound alumni, who fondly called him “RonThom” and by the thousands of people whose lives he touched, but most keenly by those honored to be among his family and many friends.
A memorial service will be held at the University of Puget Sound at a date to be determined. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Ron and Mary Thomas Endowed Scholarship or the Ronald R. Thomas Endowed Scholarship in Writing at the University of Puget Sound, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.