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Don Thomas is Honored as South Orange Villager of the Month

The longtime resident and local historian is recognized at Monday's Board of Trustees meeting

Don Thomas is Villager of the Month. The South Orange Board of Trustees recognizes the lifelong resident at Monday night's meeting. Thomas has authored books about the history of the Village, and worked hard to ensure appropriate recognition for South Orange veterans.

Patch profiled Thomas this summer, as he prepared to put his home on the market and move to Winchester Gardens. That interview, by Claire Sinclair, follows:

A South Orange treasure is coming to Maplewood.

Don Thomas was born in 1932 and for nearly eight decades has lived in the same South Orange home. But age and health concerns have recently made Thomas decide to sell his house and take up residence at Maplewood's Winchester Gardens.

Thomas sat with me last Friday afternoon and we talked about the years he spent in his beautiful South Orange home with his parents and brother.

Don’s parents were born and raised in West Orange. His father, John Henry Thomas Jr., earned his way through college working at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in West Orange as an amateur organist. It is there that he met his wife, who was an alto soloist in the choir.

His father was a General Practioner and had his practice in their home. He bought the house — which sat on a large piece of property — in 1928, spent some time working as a medical doctor during the war and, in 1940, he added a five-room addition which became his home office. He saw patients at his home for a fee of $2 - $3 dollars a patient.

Thomas laughed as he told me that his dad also made house calls for the rate of $5. Much of his father’s original equipment is still set up in the home office today. In fact, much of the original home has remained virtually unchanged in Thomas' lifetime — although a bathroom and the kitchen have been renovated. His home is filled with beautiful pieces of antique furniture that were built by his great-grandfather in the late 1800s.

Don and his older brother, John Henry Thomas III (Tommy), attended South Mountain Elementary School and South Orange Junior High (when it was located on South Orange Avenue. It is now a P & C Bank). He graduated from Columbia High School in 1950. Only the original CHS was there at the time — the central building — as no additions had been added yet.

Don later graduated from Teachers College at Columbia University, went on to Seton Hall University where he received his Masters Degree, and then earned his Doctorate from Rutgers. He was an English teacher in Livingston and a Guidance Counselor in Westfield.  He is also the author of two books — What Exactly is the Answer and The Episcopal Church(es) of Saint Andrew and Holy Communion South Orange, New Jersey 1859-2009.

Don has been an active member of The Episcopal Church of Saint Andrew and Holy Communion for his entire life. He told me he is not their oldest member but he is the member who has been there for the longest amount of time. The second book he wrote is filled with historical facts about South Orange and its evolution, and Thomas enlightened me with stories and information about the development of South Orange before his time and the famous people who lived here and attended his church.

Thomas told me about the changes he has seen in the town as he grew up here. His family had a 1930s (he did not remember the exact year) Dodge which his father used to make house calls. Because of that, no one was allowed to take it from the home. This kept them close to the house and, since Thomas grew up very close to the strip of stores on Ridgewood Road, he spent a lot of time there and told me some memories he had from “the stores back in the time.”

“Saunder’s Candy Store” was on the corner of Cedar Lane. There they sold greeting cards, candy, newspapers, magazines and cigarettes. He told me it was a lot like “the stationery store in Maplewood Village,” but this one had a soda fountain inside where the neighborhood kids would hang out.

He remembers spending time outside of “Saunders” with the neighborhood boys “flipping cards.”  I looked up the game on the Internet where I found directions on how to play.

Next to “Saunders” was a store that he remebers almost always being vacant, though he can recall a time when Oriental vases were sold there. He remembers the third store on that side of the road always as a beauty parlor.

On the other side of the road there was a small grocery store called “National” which was an A&P competitor at the time. Right next door to that was a butcher shop where everyone went to buy their meat. He remembers being inside and it having beautiful, porcelain white walls.

In that same strip of stores was Pangiochi’s (sp) Deli. He remembers the Pangiochi Family bringing their children everyday to the store and watching them grow up.

Veldan’s Upholstery was among the stores as well and I photographed Thomas in a chair that was re-upholstered there many years ago.

Some of his most vivid memories of the strip of stores were of a man named Achilles Nataro. He was known to everyone as “Kelly the Barber.” All of the boys and men in the neighborhood went to his store. He can remember Kelly putting “gooey, greasy, yellowish-green stuff” in everyone’s hair to slick it back (a style back in the day). He also remembers the man across the street, Mr. Taylor, who had a handlebar mustache and went to Kelly everyday to have it waxed.

Again Thomas laughed as he told me about a television repair shop that was on the strip at one time. It made him remember his first television. His got it around the time he was in Junior High. It was a Dupont and had a screen that he did not think could have been more than eight inches wide. His favorite programs were “I Love Lucy,” “The Sid Ceasar Show,” “Ed Sullivan” and “Toast of the Towns.” As one of the first families to have a television, all of the local children gathered around the tiny screen to watch it together — a big contrast to the large, flat-screen television Thomas watches now.

While growing up, Thomas remembers only two places to eat in South Orange Village — “a big difference from today,” he said — Grunnings and Paley’s (sp) Tea Room. The two restaurants were very similar in fashion, but his favorite was Grunning’s and he remembers many days after football games hanging out there with his friends.

This past year, Thomas spent six months in the hospital. This, along with the property taxes and the upkeep of his home (he was still shoveling his own snow until last year), has led him put his house up for sale. He will stay local, moving to Winchester Gardens where I am sure he will continue to enlighten so many others with his stories.

My parents were raised in Maplewood and South Orange. They met at Columbia High School in the early 1960s and still reside here. My husband grew up in South Orange and he and I met at CHS in 1987.   We have stayed here as well. Don Thomas helped me to look back at all the reasons why I love it here, and why I want my children to have the opportunity to grow up in the town we love.

George Murphy January 30, 2013 at 02:09 AM
I grew up in theh 50's across the street and two houses down from Dr Thomas on the way to Sanders Candy store and Pancjockey' s Deli. (Across the street from the Whitman's) I remember that the Thomas' driveway/garage had a basketball hoop used by all of the neighborhood kids. It even had a night flood light that was accessible from the outside of the house. I have a vivid remembrance of watching a Sputnik sighting after a late night basketball outing at the Thomas court. George Murphy CHS ' 66

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