Two alumni receive award during surprise ceremony
Berea College President Lyle Roelofs presented Carl Thomas ‘78 and his wife, Deborah Byrd Thomas ‘80, with the President’s Medallion at a surprise ceremony during the College’s 2017 Homecoming weekend on Saturday, Nov. 18.
Established in 1988 by then-President John B. Stephenson, the award is given at the discretion of the president to honor those who have shown “exemplary service in the advancement of Berea College and its cause.” Together, the Thomases are the 16th recipients of the President’s Medallion.
“To receive one of Berea’s highest honors—it makes me feel good about the work we’ve done in promoting the mission of Berea College,” Carl said after the ceremony. “Berea turned out to be my calling.”
Carl Thomas has worked for Berea College for nearly 40 years, and serves as associate director of Admissions and coordinator of Minority Services. A native of Birmingham, Ala., Carl has split his time between Berea and his hometown for the majority of his career. Deborah works at the Social Security Administration in Birmingham, where they raised their three children.
After graduating from Berea, Carl decided to forgo a career in the military to work at the College. He has been a conduit through which more than 850 high school students have found their own way to Berea College. Drawing upon his own college experience at Berea, he is committed to connecting deserving students all over the South with his alma mater.
“What a pleasure and privilege it is to award President’s Medallions to Carl and Deborah Thomas,” Roelofs said. “Carl and Deborah, in their long service to the College, really deserve a great deal of the credit for strengthening our interracial mission by bringing so many deserving and accomplished students of color to Berea College.”
An unexpected honor
In the weeks leading up to Homecoming, a plan was in the works to involve all three Thomas children—Jessica, John and Josh—in the surprise ceremony. Friends, alumni and colleagues also were filmed for a special tribute video, sharing how the Thomases have had an impact on their personal and professional lives. All participants were asked to keep their involvement secret.
Carl was under the impression he would give a brief overview of the new African American Opportunity Fund at Berea during the annual Black Music Ensemble Homecoming reception. But instead, Vice President for Alumni and College Relations Bernadine Douglas informed the crowd that they would not be talking about the fund that afternoon.
Carl said even then, he didn’t grasp what was happening until two of their children, Jessica and Josh, entered the room and their son John appeared on the room’s large screens via Skype.
“Nobody leaked it. I was completely taken off guard—even to the point of being startled when I turned and saw my kids,” Carl recalled. “It was a very special moment in my life. To realize that the College, the president and my colleagues thought as much of us to bestow such a distinguished honor.”
Aside from her three kids, being awarded the President’s Medallion “was one of the best things to ever happen to me,” Deborah said.
“Berea’s mission is about helping people. Our family has been blessed through helping others,” she said. “I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to connect with the many kids who have come through our home over the years.”
Carl helps prospective students focus on their dreams for the future and connects them to resources to find the support on campus to help them achieve their dreams.
“Berea is the place for the student who comes here on a bus with one suitcase, graduates with a degree, passionately pursues their career and lives as a model citizen. It’s a game changer. That’s why I’ve spent my life doing this work. That kind of student needs a mentor who can see beyond where they can see for themselves. I see beyond for them, and I help them get here.”