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Joe Thomas, who once served on the county school board and board of supervisors, died Wednesday.
Sunday, September 8, 2013
It never mattered how late he stayed up on Saturday nights. It never mattered if he was going to be 15 minutes late. It didn’t matter how hard he worked all week. On Sunday mornings, Joe Thomas was always seated in the front of United Methodist Church in Salem on the second pew on the left, right in front of the preacher.
Friday was Thomas’ last visit to his beloved church. His funeral was held there after his death Wednesday . His son, Joe Thomas Jr., told several stories about the Roanoke County native who had a hand in some of the area’s largest development projects during his 91 years . He worked as an excavating contractor on Tanglewood Mall, Valley View Mall, Spring Hollow Reservoir, LewisGale Medical Center and Salem Memorial Baseball Stadium.
One of Thomas’ personal favorite accomplishments was working on the Hanging Rock Golf Course. His son said there was hardly anything he loved more than his church, his family, his Virginia Tech Hokies and the leisurely sport of golf.
“There weren’t a lot of public golf facilities, and he felt like golf needed to be branched out to just anybody,” the younger Thomas said. “There was nothing like that in the western community.”
Thomas grew up on his family farm during the Great Depression, working in the family’s tomato canning factory and raising crops and livestock. That time instilled values of hard work, loyalty and generosity that never left him.
He later went to college at Virginia Tech, where he became a devoted football fan and seldom missed a game for the past 50 years, even flying to a lot of away games.
Thomas later became involved in education in a different way, serving on the Roanoke County School Board. He also served on the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors.
Thomas’ son said his generosity set him apart from other businessmen.
“I never had a time in my life — right up until this past Wednesday [Sept. 4] where I couldn’t go to him with a problem and he wouldn’t help me with it,” the younger Thomas said at his father’s eulogy. “He had that unbelievable knack to emotionally wrap his arms around you, tell you everything would be OK, and you knew it would be.”
To the son’s surprise a man spoke at the funeral about how Thomas lent him $10,000 to buy a home more than 30 years ago when he was just 18 years old. He said when he went to pay Thomas back , he tried to give him interest, but Thomas wouldn’t take it, telling him he gave him the loan as a friend and wanted nothing more.
It was his considerate nature that kept him in his hometown and working in development, Thomas’ son said.
“He wanted to make the community better,” he said. “He felt like he had to do it. He didn’t do it solely for personal gain, but he believed that is what you needed to do.”
He said since his dad died, his family has been inundated with phone calls and sympathizers telling stories of working with Thomas.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “I burned up my cell phone battery for days of people calling and texting. Just a tremendous outreach of love and support.”
Thomas was preceded in death by his wife, Susan Leftwich Thomas, and is survived by his son and a daughter, Julia Thomas Arthur.
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