Carl & Deborah Byrd Thomas

Two young students from Birmingham, Ala., found their landing space at Berea in the 1970s, and continue to grow and develop that space for countless others today. Carl and Deborah Thomas exemplify lessons learned at Berea through their role as alumni and donors, and through Carl’s former role with Berea College admissions. 

Carl ’78 came from a large family of boys and developed a strong work ethic early in life. As a high school student, he happened upon an event held at school that featured an admissions counselor from Berea College. 

“The more he talked about Berea, the more Berea fit in line with my interests and things I wanted to do,” Carl said. He liked that at Berea he could help pay for college room and board through the labor program, that Berea was academically strong and that it was affordable. Deborah Byrd Thomas ’80, a fellow high school classmate of Carl’s, was admitted to the University of Alabama as well as Berea College. The free tuition was a significant pull for her to attend Berea. 

At Berea, Deborah appreciated the dignity of the labor program as well as exposure to people from different cultures and backgrounds. Living with people from diverse backgrounds was significant for her. She enjoyed having the opportunity to learn about people who were different from herself and for them to learn about her, Deborah noted.” 

You break bread with people who are different than you. If you break bread with somebody, conversations are going to happen, and you are going to learn something about that person.

Carl Thomas

[Berea College founder] John G. Fee was doing something that we are trying to get people to do today,” Deborah said. “He saw that all people matter because he didn’t establish Berea College for just one kind of people. He saw that there was a need for everybody to learn, to be engaged in an environment that would free them to be active and productive citizens.” 

Carl believes one of the greatest advantages of attending Berea is the opportunity to learn with and about the diverse members of the College community. “You break bread with people who are different than you,” Carl said. “If you break bread with somebody, conversations are going to happen, and you are going to learn something about that person.” 

Carl’s Berea experience was so transformative that he became an admissions counselor for the College immediately after graduating. He served the College in various admissions roles for 40 years, splitting time between Berea and his home in Birmingham for most of that tenure. Throughout that time, Carl and Deborah welcomed students and their families into their home to tell them about Berea’s many opportunities and to learn more about the students’ backgrounds and stories. Carl also made numerous family visits in his role. Both were invested in the life of each student and had a strong desire to help them find their own landing space at Berea. That 40-year investment in Berea students earned the couple the President’s Medallion, presented to them by Berea College President Lyle Roelofs in 2017 for their exemplary service. 

Upon retirement, Carl asked himself, “How can you continue this legacy?” He and Deborah wanted to see the continuation of programs that had helped them successfully transition at Berea. They created the Carl and Deborah Thomas African American Opportunity Endowment Fund, which helps provide programs that attract and support African American students. 

“It was important for me to continue to provide a space for African American students when they come to Berea, a landing space so that they would feel comfortable and then migrate out to the rest of campus,” Carl said. 

As Bereans live and work together on campus and share their experiences beyond their time as students, Carl contemplates how all people can choose to work together. “I think it is good to have the conversations we are having right now, but we also must do what John G. Fee and others did, to take action, to stand on your belief that all men are created equal. That it is not just idealistic, but that it is actually a reality.” 

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