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#90 Rev. John Thomas Was a University President During Two World Wars

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, Leaders & Legacy

The Rev. John Thomas was born in Fort Covington, N.Y., graduating from Middlebury College in 1890 and from Union Theological Seminary in 1893. He spent 15 years as a Presbyterian minister in New Jersey before becoming president of Middlebury in 1908.

He served in that capacity for 13 years, leading the college through World War I. After the armistice, he spent time serving as a chaplain on returning troop transport ships. Also during his time at Middlebury, he oversaw the establishment of two flagship programs, the Middlebury Language Schools and the Bread Loaf School of English.
As a member of the Vermont higher-education community, he had a close relationship with Norwich during that time, even granting an honorary degree to NU President Ira Reeves in 1917. Finally, in 1937, he was brought to Norwich as one of our own.

Thomas became acting president in 1937, assuming the role amid sitting President Porter Adams’ health concerns. After Adams officially stepped down in 1939, the Board of Trustees installed Thomas as president. His tenure was marked by tumult both at home and abroad. Europe went to war the same year that he was elected by the Board of Trustees.

From the time that the U.S. entered the war in 1941, Norwich men were involved in the conflict. But the war truly came to Northfield in 1943. President Thomas and the board made the decision to hold commencement early so that the senior class could be sent off to serve their country, much as had been done in 1917.

Until the end of his term, Thomas oversaw a campus that bore little resemblance to the one he once knew. The traditional programs were largely suspended, and the campus was used for a variety of wartime military training exercises, most notably the Army Specialized Training Program, which was set up at colleges around the country.

The announcement in late 1943 of Thomas’ retirement came as a shock. Then 73 years old, the lifelong educator felt that Norwich needed a leader who was better able to handle the taxing work of keeping the community together through the challenges of wartime. He was succeeded by Homer Dodge, who would serve as president until the inauguration of Ernest Harmon in 1950. Thomas was beloved for his indispensable leadership and sorely missed. He passed away in 1952.

The Norwich University Archives houses John Thomas’ personal papers as well as other documentation of activities at Norwich during World War II. Contact us or visit http://archives.norwich.edu to learn more.

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