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Don Thomas, Longtime South Orange Resident, Passes Away at 79

Thomas will always be remembered for his love of his town and his church.

South Orange lost a true treasure on Saturday as longtime resident Donald (Don) Thomas passed away following a battle with pancreatic cancer.  He was 79. 

Born in 1932, Thomas lived in a house on Lenox Place for .  Following the deterioration of his health, Thomas made the decision to sell the house in the summer of 2011 and move to Maplewood's .

Thomas graduated in 1950 and then went to Columbia University for his undergraduate degree, for his masters and finally Rutgers University for his doctorate.  He spent 10 years as an English teacher in Livingston, followed by another 20 as a Guidance Counselor in Westfield. 

However, Thomas’ lasting legacy may have been his involvement with , of which he spent his entire life as a member.

“He was part of the very fabric of the church” the church's rector, Rev. Sandye Wilson said in an interview with Patch on Monday.  “He’s been a member of it since before he was born.  He loved this church and he loved this town.  He loved every bit of the fiber of the church.  There are many things he built with his own hands and many things that he saw.”

Thomas took those experiences at the Church and titled , in celebration of the Church’s 150th anniversary.  Formerly two separate Episcopal parishes, St. Andrew and the Church of the Holy Communion came together in 1973 when it was agreed that there were no longer enough Episcopalians in South Orange to support both.  Thomas was a member of the latter and formerly was a member of the choir.

"Even though it's a mouthful, at least it preserves the history of the two churches," Thomas told Patch in December 2010 when asked about the book.

In the course of his research for the book, Thomas discovered .  He found a parish register that listed men of the Village who served and died in World War I.  Except for McCoy, all the names also appear on the memorial flagpole in the center of town. Thomas wondered if McCoy belonged there, as well. 

"This is important," Thomas told Patch at the time. "This man gave the ultimate sacrifice. If he were my son or nephew, I would want him recognized."

The name was added to the memorial in June 2010, thanks in huge part to Don Thomas.  This was just another of the many ways that Thomas contributed to his home town.

“I know many will miss Don’s contributions to our community, especially to all of our understandings and enjoyment of South Orange history,” said South Orange Village President Alex Torpey, upon hearing of Thomas’ passing.

Thomas was the last surviving member of his family.  He never married, nor did he have children.  And while he asked before his death that there not be a memorial service, he lived a full life with a town full of friends who will miss him. 

“He distinct wishes were that when people hear of his death, they stop and say a prayer for him,” said Rev. Wilson.  “He doesn’t want the expense of people coming together for a service for him.  He believed that what you do, you do in life.”

Claire Sinclair and Marcia Worth contributed to this report.

Mike Mulligan January 26, 2012 at 12:41 PM
I am related to Don by marriage. I met him in the late nineties and realized at that time, what an extraordinary man he was. He also wrote a book titled "What, Exactly, Is the Answer?” which posed some very difficult positions. Since then, my wife and I have travelled to South Orange and spent several days with Don and he accompanied us to NYC and pointed us to some really great South Orange eateries. However, my most endearing remembrance of him was that in October of 2009, he, along with my wife, walked to the Crown of the newly re-opened Statue of Liberty. at the age of 78; I will remember that picture for the remainder of my life. Don loved this country, almost as much as he loved his church and the city of South Orange, NJ. Don, you will be missed, and I wish that I had met you much earlier in my life.

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