As a high school student, Kansas City native Dr. David A. Thomas believed if he carefully applied himself in class and worked hard that his education would take him far. And it has: Thomas currently serves on the faculty of Harvard University’s Business School, and was Dean of Georgetown University’s School of Business where he led a 5 year capital campaign that fundraised more than $130 million for that institution. He holds a graduate degree from Columbia University and was the 2nd African American to earn a PhD in organizational behavior at Yale University. The first of the year, Thomas will take on an even greater challenge. He’ll step in as only the 12th president of the 150-year-old Morehouse College.

The 1974 Paseo High School graduate has remained humble. He’s a family man with three children, and his wife, the former Willetta Lewis is also from Kansas City. Thomas gives credit to two primary factors that helped him along the way: his parents and the Kansas City community that he grew up in.

Thomas was born in Kansas City Missouri and is the second of four sons. Neither of his parents graduated from high school, but they worked hard to provide David and his brothers a stable home environment and a healthy confidence in their abilities.

“They were phenomenal in supporting anything I wanted to do, and getting me to believe that anything I put my mind to and was willing to be disciplined about, I could achieve,” Dr. Thomas said during a phone interview.

At a very early age, his father taught him the value of hard work. His father was a maintenance worker and he would often take Thomas and one of his younger brothers to the offices he cleaned overnight. At the young age of five, Thomas emptied ash trays. Later, when he was old enough, he would help mop and clean the bathrooms.

There were other experiences in Kansas City that had a formative effect on his young adult years. He continued to hold part-time jobs as a teenager. He sold Kansas City Call newspapers, sweated in a football-sized parking lot while rolling fire hoses for the fire department, and worked at McDonalds. In 1972, when the Federal Government cut back on summer jobs, Thomas said he and other student leaders in Kansas City responded by creating the Job Opportunities for Youth program. Thomas became a field coordinator with the program.

Thomas also made time to play organized sports at the John Thornberry Unit of the Boys and Girls Club on 43rd Street and Cleveland, and he served in a leadership role with the Youth Council at St. Stephens Baptist Church. He was also an outside linebacker for the Paseo High School Pirate’s football team.

“I got opportunities to exercise leadership in those activities. It gave me opportunities to build confidence in myself,” Thomas said.

After hearing about a foreign exchange program the summer before his senior year at Paseo, Thomas applied to the program and soon found himself in France.

“I lived in a small town in the South of France. I didn’t speak the language. I really had to learn how to integrate into a new culture. So then when I got to Yale and discovered it was a different culture, well I already knew how to adapt.” Thomas said.

Thomas applied to Yale and Morehouse and received acceptance letters from both. Yale offered him a full scholarship. So, Thomas chose Yale. During much of his freshman year, he felt woefully unprepared for the academic challenges.

“They really weren’t educating Black kids for high expectations, for where we would go afterwards. So, when I left Paseo High School, I had taken the most advanced math. But we didn’t offer calculus. Well, when I got to Yale, Calculus was the entry course. I had never had to write a research paper. I realized that most of the kids who I was sitting next to in class, they had all done research papers and knew how to develop a thesis,” Thomas said.

Thomas studied around the clock his first year, playing “catch up” and was able to successfully adapt to his new environment at Yale by seeking the encouragement of mentors. Thomas said that in addition to his parent’s encouragement, after he decided to pursue graduate studies, he was able to build relationships with key scholars in his field, like Dr. Leroy Wells and Dr. Clayton Alderfer. They made it clear they believed in Thomas’ abilities.

“At times it looked like tough love, but it’s exactly what you need to come out of a doctoral program and then be well prepared for an academic career at a high status academic institution.”

When Thomas assumes the Morehouse Presidency on Jan. 1, 2018 he will be the first president not to have attended the College since Benjamin E. Mays, who was president of Morehouse for 27 years.

Thomas plans to be an effective mentor and role model for the young men at the historic all male institution.

“I hope that I create the type of environment where every young man can find at least one or more adult, who when they leave they will think to themselves, ‘without this person I could not have felt prepared as I feel to go and make my way in the world,’” Thomas said.

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