When we talked recently about why he’s thankful, Matthew Thomas Jr., 71, told me about his two-decade-long career as a wastewater treatment plant supervisor in Lynchburg, and before that as a journalist and writer.
He casually mentioned he’d been published in the Saturday Evening Post. In its heyday that was the most prestigious magazine in America. Among the authors it featured were F. Scott Fitzgerald, O. Henry, Stephen Crane, Ring Lardner and Rudyard Kipling — after the Post rejected Kipling’s first 12 efforts.
“I wrote jokes, and they published some,” Thomas told me.
“Tell me one,” I said.
“There was a college student at a 7-Eleven store,” Thomas began. “The store clerk accused him of stealing 12 beers. So the student hired a lawyer, who assured the kid he could get him off.
“’Everybody knows it takes 24 beers to make a case,’ the lawyer added.”
Thomas earned $25 for that ditty, which has little to do with why he’s thankful today. But it shows the grace and attitude toward life that he retains, despite more than two decades of suffering with a crippling illness, ankylosing spondylitis, a kind of arthritis that typically affects the lower spine.
That forced his retirement from the city of Lynchburg’s sewage treatment plant at the age of 52, Thomas told me. He’s been officially disabled for the past 19 years.
The progressive medical condition began to affect him in his late 40s, he said.
“By the time I got to 48, I started really stiffening up,” Thomas told me. It made it more and more difficult to do his job, especially one key duty: regularly collecting water samples from large, outdoor pools known as “clarifiers.”
That required bending over, which was increasingly hard for Thomas to do. Colleagues began fearing Thomas would fall into a clarifier one day while he was alone collecting a water sample.
“Those clarifiers are pretty deep,” said Thomas, who’s unmarried and has no children. “I wanted to keep working. I guess I was too much of a liability.” So he retired on disability.
He lived by himself until January 2014. By then, it was difficult to bathe or dress himself.
“I just felt like, I could do better here [at Carriage Hill] if I didn’t have someone coming by three to four times a day to help me, checking on me.”
Carriage Hill in Bedford has roughly 70 residents, he said. There, aides help people like him who have difficulty managing for themselves.
“They’re very understanding. They have a lot of patience,” Thomas added.
This year presented even greater challenges. In May, Thomas broke one of his femurs, the largest bone in the human body. It happened as he maneuvered in his bathroom.
“I heard it crack,” Thomas said. “It was a real bad crack, like a tree limb broke. It was pretty frightening.”
That landed him in the hospital for surgery that involved setting the fracture with metal plates and pins. After a week in the hospital, he spent two months at a rehabilitation center in Lynchburg.
Thomas mentioned this to me in a handwritten “thankful” letter he humorously titled “What a break!” In it, he wrote he was thankful he could walk, which most of us take for granted.
“When I broke my femur (thigh bone) in May 2019, I never imagined how thankful I would be to walk again, even with a walker,” Thomas wrote. “I’m thankful to God, my doctors, the physical and occupational therapists, the nurses and aides, who played a part in helping me to get back on my feet.”
Later, when we spoke, I learned that Thomas was born in Richmond and raised in Lynchburg. His father worked at Babcock & Wilcox as a janitorial supervisor. His mother cooked meals at Lynchburg’s juvenile detention center.
Thomas was an only child, but his grandparents (who lived under the same roof) had two foster children he considered siblings. For high school, his parents sent him away to St. Emma’s Military Academy, a private Catholic boarding school in Powhatan, east of Richmond.
“My dad went there, in 1934,” Thomas told me. “And I had a first cousin who graduated there in 1957. I was kind of following the family tradition.”
After high school, Thomas attended Gaston College, a two-year school in North Carolina, then transferred to East Carolina University in Greenville, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English.
He told me he worked for about a year writing sports-feature stories for the The (Lynchburg) News & Advance. Although he wanted to be a writer and did some freelancing here and there, that work was spotty.
Eventually, he landed a full-time gig as a sewage plant operator, a job he held for more than 20 years, Thomas said.
His Thanksgiving repast Thursday will happen at Carriage Hill. His closest relatives, a couple of cousins, may stop by, Thomas said.
“When I eat my Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends,” he wrote, “the meal will taste even more delicious because I’m so thankful to be out of the hospital, and out of rehab, and therapy. Thanksgiving 2019 will be one of the most memorable of my lifetime.”
Here are some reasons others are feeling thankful:
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Dianne Rhody-Scott, Giles County
I had misgivings about accepting this ride. It was too late now. We sat next to him while he drove and twitched.
Thanksgiving break 1972 my younger sister and I planned to share Thanksgiving with our family in Northern Wisconsin. We were students at the university in Madison. We would surprise our parents by hitchhiking to our town to call them.
Now we were in a desolate section of highway, riding in a dusty, broken-down blue station wagon. The car had a deafening roar. The dusty back was laid flat for cargo; a shovel and kerosene can. I slowly felt that we were captives. I felt a cold chill.
My tension eased when the stranger said he wanted to “get something” in a nearby town. He let us out on the freeway far from an exit or on ramp. He promised take us the entire 150 miles to our home when he returned.
We waited for a ride as a thousand minutes passed. Suddenly, a black sedan slowed, then backed, then stopped. The driver was a middle-aged man in a suit, driving an expensive, plush car. We told him about the twitching man and our fear. He asked questions and drove silently until reaching a secondary road where he left us under a crossroads underpass.
The last miles home were unremarkable and our Thanksgiving was warmer than ever before. Thanksgivings I recall the saint who helped two strangers and delivered us from evil. I am ever thankful!
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Joseph L. Scarpaci, Blacksburg
As a third-generation immigrant, I’m fond of the adage that the greatest compliment the world pays to America is the quality of its immigrants.
Working as a translator for area schools gives me a front-row seat to parent-teacher conferences and home visits. I’m grateful for the support these immigrant children and their parents receive, the care that counselors and administrators bring to the table, and the mutual respect shown in these brief meetings.
On the one hand, the parents’ first question is usually: “How is my child behaving in the classroom?” Most of the time the teachers respond glowingly; some of these first-generation students are even the teachers’ go-to kids when the instructors are busy and need an extra set of hands or eyes. Parents beam with pride when they hear this. Bullying because of language difficulty or skin color is rare.
On the other hand, teachers outline strategies of instruction, explain (boring) standardized test results, and frequently end their meetings with a heartfelt “I love having [your child] in my class!”
Small, incremental, and seemingly nuanced miracles surface at these meetings. Sometimes they end with tears of frustration but are mostly sealed with tears of joy and gratitude. Such welcoming southwest Virginia vignettes make America even greater every single day. And for that I am thankful.
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Loni Bier, Daleville
I am terribly grateful for growing up as a full-fledged baby boomer. While we had none of the so-called “amenities” that this generation of children are privy to, we had so much more. I am grateful for dinners at night with my siblings and parents where someone inevitably spilled something and chaos ensued. But I remember a lot of laughter as well. I am grateful for all I learned about my parents at that dinner table.
I am so grateful for parents who realized the need for outdoor play and encouraged it (but not until your homework was completed)! There will never be any substitution in my mind for ice skating after school, yes even with your crazy brothers and all your crazy neighbors, playing silly games until dusk.
I am grateful for the blue-collar home I grew up in, where I learned the value of a dollar. I received toys and gifts twice a year — my birthday and Christmas. A perfect report card would ensure your favorite candy bar.
I am grateful for the values, morals and work ethic my parents instilled in all their children. Finally, I am most grateful for being part of a generation that was grounded in compassion and kindness because their parents witnessed the most horrific display of hatred in the history of the world.
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Marc Hirsch, Roanoke
I am thankful to my family and Carilion Clinic. On April 23, 2019, I had a stroke. I recently found out the first couple days my chances of surviving were less than 50%. My daughter came home during the height of her senior year and finals. My wife canceled two trips that were part of her professional association. As a senior director she somehow was able to make it to the rehab center for the whole month I was there. She cleaned me up and put me to bed every night.
Carilion’s people at the ER, rehab (Jefferson Center) and outpatient were phenomenal. Especially the rehab people: April, Rachel, Josh, Madison and Liz. Every day these people put on their “happy faces” and push people to their limits of what is possible.
But I am very grateful to my family and friends who were there for me and supported me at a time when I didn’t realize I needed support. You see, when you’re there you don’t really realize how bad things are. People who have seen you babbling (chemistry in my case) incoherently, have to love you a lot to see you in a bad situation.
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Tara Scott, Roanoke
It was 1981 and the company I worked for had filed bankruptcy. I was 26 and not sure what I was going to do. I visited the community college nearby to look into options and the nice advisor said, “We have a new program you might be interested in called respiratory therapy.” I said, “OK,” having no idea what it really was. The next week I started on a 37-year-long journey into health care and never looked back.
My first day EVER doing clinicals in a hospital I passed out watching someone draw blood. I was terrified that I had made a HUGE mistake. My instructor assured me that it would get easier. She was right. I began to realize that my greatest learning opportunities came not from the classroom but from the people I cared for. There was much to see and learn. Each patient was unique and different with their own story.
Each patient was a mother, a son, a grandmother, or perhaps all alone. I was taught compassion, patience and even humor from those I cared for. I was taught humility and respect for all the wonders and pain of living and dying. Holding a hand could bring a smile that a dose of medicine did not. Urgency meant something very different looking up from a bed than looking down at the person in it. Perspective began to take on a new meaning.
Advocacy became a passion that was fed by years of experiences with patients teaching me what made a difference to THEM. Few patients likely think about the impact they have on healthcare professionals. They have had a profound impact on who I am today and I am so thankful for each and every one of them for helping me learn to be a better person.
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Carson Ray, Roanoke County
There have always been times when I wasn’t thankful for my two brothers. Whether they were stealing my walkie-talkies, messing with my Legos, copying everything I did, or just annoying me to the brim, I found it impossible to love them as I should have.
As I was the oldest of my siblings, I found it demeaning to consider embracing my brothers, aiding them, or even snuggling on the couch with them on a cold night. But this Thanksgiving, I wish to reconsider my gratitude for the other members of my family. I will strive be that stern and solid anchor on the churning sea of life for them, there through thick and thin. Despite my constant misgivings, I also want to see more of the bright side of my brothers, to embrace their jubilant, energetic attitude regardless of their pesky temperament.
I completely missed the small signs of love they had for me all along in what I saw to be a nuisance. They just wanted to be like their big brother and get his attention. Now, I want to stick closer than ever to my siblings, always thankful for the amazing miracles of life they are.
• • •
Annie Lin, Salem
There are so many ways, so many things, and so many people that I am thankful for.
I am thankful for my family in Taiwan, R.O.C. Friends, co-workers, Roanoke Times and Senior News, doctors. My son, Jerry Wu, who was born with Down Syndrome, and for God.
Especially, thankful for Mark A. Schmidt, M.D., a urologist. Dec. 10, 2018, Jerry was scheduled to have surgery to remove his right kidney, because it wasn’t functioning any more due to a large tumor. Dec. 13, 2018, I signed a discharge paper. I said, “We are going home for Christmas!”
Now, Jerry is doing very well even though he needs CPAP at bedtime and needs to take his heart medications every day. He’s always blessing me in my life.
• • •
Ernst H. Kastning, Radford
I am thankful for bats. I have always been one with nature, embracing all living things. The natural world is my sanctuary.
Now, about bats: These furry creatures are largely unsung heroes in nature, and they are often misaligned as evil and nocturnal threats (especially at Halloween or in horror tales). But bats are among the most benign and amazing animals in existence and they are crucial to the well-being of life on Earth. With over 1,200 distinct species around the world, bats are the largest order of mammals, second only to rodents!
Having explored and studied caves for over 50 years in 45 states, I have seen and experienced a great many bats. While living in Texas, I would witness one of the greatest natural spectacles, the flight of 15 to 25 million Mexican freetail bats as they emerge from a single cave at dusk in a great cloud, to forage. They drastically limit the insect population. In some locales, bats are vital pollinators of plants. Living longer than most mammals their size, bats are highly adapted to acrobatic flying and they use echolocation to navigate in the dark and find prey.
I am thankful for my friends, the amazing bats.
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Siena Lademarco, Roanoke County
This Thanksgiving, one of the many things I am thankful for is my horse, Bella. I am extremely privileged to be able to ride my own horse in my back yard, and I don’t take it for granted. There are so many things I have learned from Bella and so much we have accomplished together.
We have completed goals and made vast amounts of progress, but I’m still so far from where I want to be, and I can’t wait to be amazed at what we attain in years to come. The will and drive not only from me, but from Bella, which is where it all starts, make me so appreciative of her and all that we achieve together. I am so thankful for Bella, all that she has given me, and for her seemingly endless spirit and determination.
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Sam Hoefner, Roanoke County
While many kids and teenagers treat strict restrictions as a misfortune and as a reason to not be thankful, I believe this is one of the most essential things anybody can learn in the early stages of life. My parents are both doctors; not only do they provide a steady income, but also an insuppressible flow of the fundamental rules of leading a healthy and successful life.
Every day, my mom wakes up early and enforces healthy habits by preparing fresh, healthy, homemade meals. Instead of staring at a screen, my dad would make me play my instruments, read a book or learn something new. And every day, my parents expect nothing less than As. When I was younger, they were the source of my misery.
Now that I am mature and educated, I understand that I really am blessed to have parents like the ones I have. This Thanksgiving I am thankful for my parents’ strict but crucial habits they have ingrained in me since my birth. I look forward to the day when I am 75 and still living in a healthy and strong body.
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Pete Ramey, Christiansburg
The older we become the more we reflect back but I can honestly state how thankful I am for each day. Every morning when I awake the first words out of my mouth are, “Thank You God for allowing me to see another day ... a day that I have never seen before and will never ever see again.”
I’m thankful for the big things, little things, small things and the tiny things. I’m thankful for legs that walk, tongue that can talk and arms that can move. I’m thankful for eyes to see, and nose to smell. I’m thankful for my space on this earth and I’m super thankful for friends, family and loved ones. But most of all I’m thankful that I know Jesus.
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Donna Haarz, Moneta
A friend’s recent news has had me thinking we should be more thankful for each day we have with friends and family. Christine, my Australian pen pal, emailed me to tell me her husband had died unexpectedly, two days earlier.
We have been pen pals for almost 60 years, starting when we were 10 years old. So although we have spent little time together, we have been best friends for a long time. This news came as a shock. But it wasn’t only the news, but the circumstance in her life that led me to be thankful for my loved ones and each day I spend with them.
She has been fighting breast cancer for almost a year with chemo and radiation and is now awaiting a decision about a mastectomy. During this time, her husband contracted a bacteria that spread through his body. It was serious. But together they were determined to get better.
She said they were glad to be sick at the same time, so they would only “lose” one year of their lives to illness and not two. Recovering, they took lots of walks and talked. She is grateful for that. She actually said it was a “good year” in their marriage. But now he is gone.
I am thankful for each day and with whom I spend it.
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Tania Lexima, Roanoke
I’m thankful for the life I’m LIVING!
There’s a lot of things I could be thankful for but sometimes it’s the little things that you don’t think about all the time. I’m thankful for the life I’m living because I could end up being anywhere else.
I could’ve had a life with abusive parents or where I have to fend for myself, I could’ve had divorced parents and/or mean stepparents so I’m very appreciative of the life I have. Honestly if you think of what you have and others don’t you’ll have a lot to be grateful for!
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Betsy Nardi, Blacksburg
Some folks are grateful for pumpkin pie, I’m grateful for my serving of 2019 humble pie.
I have cancer in remission, experts tell me it won’t always be, so I moved closer to my doctors in anticipation of “it” hitting the fan. I had lived in Blacksburg for 40 years, and up and moved. I lost three dear friends this year, and it knocked me down hard. Life is so fragile. And so short. A late employer used to say, “Life is like a roll of toilet tissue — it goes a lot faster the closer you get to the end.” He was so right.
So I made the move — it was the right thing to do, but the timing was WAY off. I relocated and had a meltdown. I came to realize that I moved in anticipation of the relapse happening now (and for now and until they tell me otherwise, I’m good).
The adjustment to the move, the grief of my losses, and most importantly my self-imposed loss of my tribe — my dear friends in Blacksburg who got me through a very rough and sometimes homeless 2016 — nearly sent me over the edge. I felt so very shallow for underestimating the value of my tribe.
So I moved back to Blacksburg. Life gave me a serving of humble pie, I’ve eaten it (still nibbling it) and I am MOST GRATEFUL that my tribe has forgiven me for that underestimation and welcomed me home.
So I’m grateful for humble pie, and all that comes with it.
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Philip Hughes, Fairlawn
When I was five in 1940 my father and mother on a lark drove to Radford where my dad applied and was hired to work at the new Army arsenal. We were living in Jenkins, Kentucky, a coal mining town where almost all men worked for Consolidation Coal Inc.
Within months a solid stream of my family and friends also found their way to Pulaski County, mostly buying houses in Fairlawn. Two recent obituaries in your paper, Jack and Gary Gaking, were my childhood friends also born in Jenkins, as were I and my sister.
Our parents were lifelong friends from Jenkins and Fairlawn. Jack also was employed by The Roanoke Times. From seventh grade through high school, I sold The Roanoke World-News at the arsenal daytime end of shift and was the only person allowed to roam through the administration building without a badge or clearance.
My family and friends led very blessed and successful lives as Virginians and escaped the later sad history of coal miners and their towns.
• • •
Cynthia Crane Jones, Vinton
I am so thankful for snail mail, and the United States Postal Service.
My son joined the United States Navy in 1994. In the first six months, he was home ported in Norfolk. He was assigned to a destroyer and deployed within four months to a Mediterranean cruise. He was 19 years old.
We didn’t have email to his ship until several years later, so we depended on snail mail to keep in touch. Sometimes, we would get no letters for several weeks, and then two or three together. He was only able to call home twice during that time.
How his father, Darryl, and I cherished those letters! Everything stopped, as we sat down to read the letters. Just to know that he had touched the letter, that three weeks ago he was safe, but homesick, meant so much to us.
After 21 years, he returned home to Bedford County. In fact his wife, his teen daughter and two toddlers came home too!
I still keep all those letters to remind me how we prayed for his safe return, and how God protected him through 32 foreign countries. So thankful for those letters.
• • •
Ken Arthur, Roanoke
I’m thankful to live in a place where there is law and order and I can fulfill my individual wishes. I have been in a place where the so-called government ruled during the day and at night the land was ruled by an opposition force.
Can we understand the terror upon hearing footsteps at night? I read in the paper about areas where millions of refugees live in squalor at the mercy of roving thugs. We hear about areas where rival groups terrorize each other based on religion, color or some other issue.
Do I agree always with Mayor [Sherman] Lea, Gov. [Ralph] Northam, or President [Donald] Trump? No, no I don’t. But I can vote against them in a fair election. I can try and make a change. Do I think our Roanoke Police Department is the greatest in the land? When I have called they have come, every time, and I have been treated with respect. I can’t ask for more.
Without what I am thankful for, all the other things in life are almost impossible. Having a family, achieving self-respect, freedom of religion, taking a vacation, almost everything we take for granted cannot be accomplished. We live in a great land and a wonderful community. Wouldn’t it be great to be thankful for these gifts each day?
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Ellen Grasso, Christiansburg
I am thankful for James and Francine Gordon. Last year, I decided to move to Virginia from Massachusetts alone with my four pets. They went above and beyond to assist me along in my new journey.
They allowed me and the pets to stay at their house for nearly two months, while I searched for a home. They were there to help me move into the house I bought. They became my support system as a searched for a job and eventually found one.
They gave me guidance in to rediscovering the power of worship and prayer. Not a day goes by that I thank the Lord for good people like the Gordons.
• • •
Angela Watkins, Natural Bridge Station
I read a lot, and I came across an article about how a dental panoramic x-ray can reveal build-up in one’s carotid arteries.
I’m also a hypochondriac. Could I have life-threatening plaque deposits and not know it? Everything had always seemed fine when my doctors listened to the blood flow, but cardiovascular issues run in my mother’s side of the family. I was only in my mid-50s, and in good shape. But a blockage could be a game-changer, and ruin all my plans for the future.
The panoramic x-ray did, indeed, show some buildup, and my dentist bade me to get it checked out.
On the day of The Test, I was trembling and short of breath; my heart pounded. The radiology technician told me that nearly everybody, after a certain age, had some buildup in at least one artery. I wasn’t reassured. The Doppler scope was cold and clammy, as it slid over my neck; I heard sounds like a washing machine.
A few days later, I learned that there was only “mild plaque disposition,” a minimal amount of plaque in the left carotid, none in the right. Nothing to worry about.
Boundless thanks, glorious hope, sunshine and optimism!
• • •
Nicky Ostrander, Roanoke County
Imagine having your deepest thoughts and secrets on display for anyone to view and have an opinion on. The ability to think or believe without outside opinions is something I’m appreciative of on a day-to-day basis. If that were not the case, humanity would not be what it is.
The individual would have to learn to think only what is socially acceptable, as to not be cast out by their peers, and eventually opinions as a concept would become obsolete. Without the fundamental component of our existence that varying opinions uphold, our species would not progress to the heights of intuitiveness it had the capacity for.