In Memoriam : Benjamin Thomas

Benjamin Harrison Thomas - age: 76
(March 15, 1941 to November 14, 2017 )
Resident of Ukiah, California

Benj Thomas died peacefully on November 14, 2017, after a yearlong illness. Benj was greatly loved, and will be deeply missed for his character, kindness, insight, wit, and much more.
Benjamin Harrison Thomas was born in Boston on March 15, 1941, the youngest of three sons. He grew up and went to school at Phillips Exeter Academy, NH, where his father taught French, and he spent summers in his beloved Castine, Maine. He graduated from Harvard University, where he and his friends laid the foundation for a lifelong passion for jazz. He earned a Master’s Degree in Frontier History at U.C. Santa Barbara.
Benj spent two formative years in the Peace Corps, as part of the first group to go to Ethiopia. He never passed up a chance to speak Amharic to any Ethiopian he encountered, nor to eat Ethiopian food. More importantly, his Peace Corps experience cemented his dedication to service and made him a citizen of the world with a special fondness for people from that corner of it.
Through his 30-plus years as a teacher, mainly in Quaker Schools, Benj had an impact on hundreds of students through whom he leaves a lasting legacy. He loved young people, especially middle school students. He taught at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, for 24 years, and then helped found the middle school at Thornton Friends School in Silver Spring, MD. When asked the customary question of what he taught, he would invariably reply, “Students.” In the final months of his life, many scores of former students wrote Benj to express deep gratitude for the ways in which he had shaped and influenced them. Several who became teachers described how he had inspired their approaches to teaching. One former student wrote, “I’m not sure about the butterfly effect, but I do believe in the ‘Benj effect’ ― your love and wisdom rippling out from you across the country and the world.”
Being a father, step-father, and grandfather was a source of much joy for Benj. He is the father of three sons, Sam, Stephen, and Matthew Thomas. His marriage in 1997 to Susan Baird Kanaan brought two step-sons, Jubran and Usama Kanaan, into the family, joining former step-daughters Laurie and Becky Gaines. He has four grandchildren (Aidan, Spencer, Oliver, and Cecilia) and two step-grandchildren (Nayla and Mina).
Benj and Susan moved to Ukiah from Washington, DC in late 2001 to be near her family. He found many creative ways to act on his dedication to nurturing community. He jumped enthusiastically into public affairs, serving on the civil Grand Jury for two years, the second year as foreman, and on the Ukiah City Council for two four-year terms. He enjoyed representing the Council on many community bodies, and had a special and ongoing connection to the Poet Laureate Committee, helping to choose Ukiah Poets Laureate and plan the Ukiah Haiku Festival. His contributions to community radio included jazz shows on KZYX and KMEC and service on the KZYX Board. He formed lasting relationships as a Mentor in the Partnership Scholars program. In his final year, Benj expressed his commitment to social justice as a founding member of the Healthy Mendocino Housing Action Team. A Quaker (Friend) since the 1970s, he was a cherished part of the Ukiah Friends Worship Group.
Benj’s family is deeply grateful to his formal and informal caregivers and to the Cancer Resource Center of Mendocino County. There will be a gathering in Ukiah in January 2018 to celebrate the life of Benj Thomas. A fund has been established at the Community Foundation of Mendocino County for those wishing to make a donation in his honor.