Willie Thomas, 44, remembers the day his life began to shift.
It was on a Sunday 30 years ago inside the World Restoration Center nondenominational church in St. Elmo, he said. His father, Eddie J. Thomas Sr., was delivering a sermon. As pastor Thomas read from the Old Testament, the congregation began to stir. He read Exodus chapter 11. Then, he read chapter 12. Then, chapter 13.
By the time he got to chapter 14 — without pausing or offering commentary — his wife, Cindy, rose from a pew and announced: “Something’s wrong.”
Indeed, the family would later learn their patriarch, whom people affectionately called the “gentle giant,” was having a stroke — a pattern that would repeat for the next several years.
“He was very lethargic,” Willie Thomas, who was 14 at the time, remembers of that day at the church. “We realized something had happened. It was like he was stuck in a cycle. The next day we discovered he had had a stroke. … He didn’t recognize my mom or us kids.”
Thomas, who now has a doctorate and is chief of staff at Cleveland State Community College, said his father’s first stroke was a turning point that resulted in years of emotional and financial stress for his family. The family lost their rental house and stayed in the basement of the church for a time before moving into a hotel on Ringgold Road.
Years earlier, Eddie and Cindy Thomas had decided to home-school their four children: Willie, his two younger sisters and his older brother. After the stroke, the boys, who were in their middle teens, went to work to help the family pull through.
“It was nothing for us to lose a home,” Willie Thomas said in an interview last week at Cleveland State. “I remember moving three times one Christmas Day.”
So, for several years, helping to put food on the table drove Willie and his brother, Johnathan, to find construction jobs. Their home schooling studies took a back seat, which ultimately caused a gap in their learning.
Still, when he turned 18, Willie Thomas told his mother he had a strong desire to go to college. He had saved up enough money from his construction job to pay for his tuition at Chattanooga State Community College.
On the first day of college registration, Thomas was one of the first students on campus, he recalled. He was excited about getting back to his formal education. He had used some of his savings to buy an ACT prep book at Books-A-Million on Highway 153. He didn’t scored well on the test but assumed he could catch up by taking remedial classes.
Unfortunately for Thomas, his educational circumstances were more complicated than he thought. He lacked a high school diploma or a GED certificate.
Even though he was gently turned away from Chattanooga State, he returned day after day, determined to find someone — anyone — who would open a crack in the door of higher education.
“I thought, ‘If I can sneak in, somebody is going to put me in class,'” he recalled.
After about 10 days of this, it was the last day of registration. By then, Willie, who had quit his construction job to go to college, was desperate. His tearful pleas finally landed on sympathetic ears, and a college vice president agreed to waive policy and let him take classes at Chattanooga State — with the condition that he finish his GED certificate before the end of his first semester.
The vice president was the first in a series of people who Thomas credits with keeping him on track.
— He remembers a Chattanooga State math teacher — with a newborn at home, no less — who stayed on the phone with him for hours some nights night prepping him for math exams.
— He remembers a deacon at his church who gave him the $50 to apply to Moorehouse College in Atlanta after Chattanooga State — when “$50 might as well have been $1,000,” he said.
— He remember the then-president of Moorehouse, Leroy Keith Jr., who met him for breakfast at Shoney’s one day and arranged an academic scholarship — at time when such aid for transfer students was uncommon.
— He remembers the administrator at Chattanooga State who gave him a minimum wage job when his path to law school didn’t pan out after earning his bachelor’s degree.
And he remembers eventually earning a master’s degree and then a doctorate in education from East Tennessee State — although he calls that GED certificate he earned from the state of Tennessee in 1997 “my most memorable academic achievement.”
For years, Thomas worked as a financial aid administrator at Chattanooga State, where every day was an exercise in paying forward all the good deeds that had come his way.
“Sometimes people need help,” he said. “I think sometimes we make judgements on where people are in life, instead of finding out where they can be.”
Thomas said, for him, it took a lot of self-discipline and a lot of support.
“But I also had some amazing people who wanted to see me succeed,” he said.
Thomas’ father died in 2017. All his siblings have done well academically, and even his mother is finishing up a degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, he said. At Cleveland State, where he has worked for about four years, he is a top assistant to President Ty Stone.
Meanwhile, he continues to attend the same St. Elmo church where his father preached and where his brother, E. Johnathan Thomas, Jr., is now senior pastor.
“There’s no way I can separate my story from divine intervention,” Willie Thomas said. “Through faith, you can conquer the world.
“I thank God for giving me grace and grit.”