clark thomas photographs / nashville

Honoring His Memory

Billy Thomas portrait, about 1968
April 7, 1919 - December 25, 2010
Forever the young Dr. Thomas

We are collecting words and pictures...

There have been many wonderful tributes to Billy Thomas since December, especially at the memorial service and reception, and we are collecting them here to share with extended family and friends. What’s up is both incomplete and not in final form so please come back, and, if you have more stories or photos we’d love to hear from you. Send email here or regular mail to: 235 Lauderdale Road, Nashville TN 37205. We can make good copies of any photos you have and return your originals. -Clark

at Kingsley Lake, about 1961
You can CLICK this photo from 1961 at Kingsley Lake to see other PHOTOs we’re collecting!

The statement below was written for the memorial service bulletin, and is followed by the Homily and personal tributes given at the reception.

text from memorial bulletin

photo: Louanne Loch, Rector
Louanne Loch, Rector

Homily by the Reverend Louanne Loch, Rector
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, 1/6/2011

We are here today to remember the life of Dr. William Thomas and offer him back to God.

When I arrived here as Rector of Holy Trinity, Dr. Thomas was already in the later stages of Alzheimer’s. Unlike most of you, I did not have the pleasure of knowing him when he was at his best. His adult-children, his wife Brenda, and one of his best friends, Dr. Bobby Slayton, helped me by sharing a few things about him.

One word that kept recurring over and over again was integrity. For Dr. Thomas, integrity was all about honesty, strong moral principles and moral uprightness. The words diligent, disciplined and dedicated were marks of his home, his work and his sports ethic. He has been described to me as a straight arrow in a world that always pressed people to bend, as in bending the rules.

He would often say “no” when “yes” was the far easier, but unprincipled answer. And yet, he would often say “yes” when asked to do something difficult that some in his field would not be WILLING to do.

He taught his children to always try their best and do the right thing by themselves and others. He was intent on his children excelling, and in his own way helped them to become the people they are to this day. He taught them that service to others is greater than looking out for number one.

Billy Thomas’ life was about his work in the field of medicine: He was tireless in his research into the cause of kidney stones and similar maladies. He loved to TRAVEL, but his WORK was his reason for BEING. Dr. Thomas considered himself very much a servant and viewed his work and research as his gift to others. He was dedicated to his patients.

People commented on what a gifted teacher Dr. Thomas was and how he loved teaching as much, if not more, than his research. One of his favorite quotes was from Henry Brooks Adams who wrote, “A teacher effects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Dr. Thomas also valued his OWN teachers especially John Eager Howard at John’s Hopkins. Dr. Howard pushed him to do better than he thought he could, or had-done before.

I am sure it was with the memory of Dr. Howard’s mentoring, that Billy and Brenda reached out to his many medical students and their wives. Some of you may be here today. They had them to their home most Friday evenings. Dr. Thomas could have stayed and taught in Baltimore or New York, but he chose to return to Gainesville, to carry on in a new way, the legacy of his father and mother. He used what he had learned from their character to build on the future in Gainesville.

His children admired how he made such a success of himself, in his life, in his work, and in finding his own place in the same profession of his greatly loved father. I am told “old” Dr. Thomas delivered over 8,000 babies in Gainesville. And some of YOU may be here today.

I shared with Brenda, that it was interesting how people still referred to Dr. Thomas, who was in his nineties, as the young Dr. Thomas. I would love that!

Rumor has it that Dr. Billy Thomas was very frugal. I was told that he would bring his own Gatorade mix to the golf course to avoid the snack-bar prices. Billy enjoyed the game of golf and was a stickler for the rules. On occasion he would engage Henry Gray in arguments on the course, to the point of breaking the group into a three-some and a one-some. I’m also told that he was fun to be around, once you understood his biting sense of humor. He always retained his charm and smile.

Later in life I’m told Billy mellowed and learned to live in the moment. In life he had what he called a “gracious plenty” never wanting more than he felt he needed.

When Billy entered the memory unit at Oak hammock, Brenda would visit and then in the late afternoon walk with him and later transport him from the unit to her apartment where they would spend time together. She saw to it that he had excellent care at that fine facility.

Brenda would take him to Kingsley Lake so that he could be with the family for various outings. Dr. William Thomas fought the good fight against alzheimers with his beloved wife Brenda, his Argentinian born beauty at his side until his death. Billy Thomas is now in a place where there is no pain or suffering or memory loss any more. As St. Paul wrote, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.”

Even though our bodily vessels become battered and bruised and finally broken through life’s pilgrimage, we still have the treasure of love given to us by God. Death may be the greatest threat that any of us face, “the last great enemy,” but it is a defeated enemy.

O death where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

The love of God goes on to the grave and beyond the grave. And so, we pause, each in his or her own way, giving thanks that God’s victory on the Cross bridges the separations in life and leads to eternal life with those we love.

Jesus promised us that in my house are many mansions...and I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself, for where I am, there you will be also.

For now we mourn with his loved ones, Brenda, (his wife), Sharron, Lynn, Clark and Valerie, (his children) and his seven grandchildren. (And very good job reading guys.) We mourn with his other relatives, his sister Betty, his colleagues, his former students and you, his friends. May we in our hearts hold the memory of his life in his role as Husband, father, grandfather, teacher and friend.

Billy Thomas fought the good fight. He loved his Lord and is now with his Lord where pain and suffering are no more, but life everlasting. Billy is now experiencing the fulfillment of the abundance of his resurrection, where nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I want to end this Homily with the oath that many of you are familiar with, the oath of Maimonides, that is taken by physicians before they receive their white coat of office. I use this oath on occasion as it is an appropriate summation of any good physician’s life. It goes as follows:

“The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of thy creatures. May the love for my art actuate me at all times; may neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to thy children.

“May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain. Grant me the strength, time and opportunity always to correct what I have acquired, always to the extent of its domain; for knowledge is immense and the spirit of humans can extend indefinitely to enrich itself daily with new requirements.

“Today, the physician can discover his errors of yesterday, and tomorrow he can obtain a new light on what he thinks himself sure of today. Oh, God, Thou hast appointed me to watch over the life and death of thy creatures; here am I ready for my vocation and now I turn to my calling.”

Dr. Billy Thomas lived out this oath to the best of human ability. And we say today: “Well done faithful servant and healer Dr. Billy Thomas.” AMEN

Bobby Slaton, at the reception
Dr. Bobby Slaton at the reception

comments delivered by Dr. Bobby Slaton at the
memorial service reception, 1/6/2011

Hello Friend...!  How many people were greeted by Billy Thomas with that accolade? I knew Billy Thomas for forty years, and I still don’t know if Billy ever really knew my first name.

There was something about hearing that ‘hello friend’ greeting, with that twinkle in his eye, and that sheepish smile, that always made you feel good about yourself. Because as long as he said hello friend, I really honestly thought of myself as his friend, and that he really meant it.

I am probably unique in this room in that I go back with Billy, as a medical student, back in the late 1960’s, where Billy taught from the school of intimidation and public embarrassment, but I think that we as medical students could always say, that when Billy wanted to get his point across, if he did it in that way, you never really forgot the point he was trying to make.

So I was associated with Billy as a medical student, I had many Friday evening dinners over at Brenda and Billy’s house, and I went on to become an endocrinology fellow under Billy Thomas. And at that point Billy became my mentor. He shared his knowledge, his wisdom. And I observed his bedside manner, Billy with his somewhat, not caustic sense of humor, but a ‘different’ sense of humor, but his patients loved it. And I think one thing I learned from him, is that when you get in a tight pinch in dealing with a difficult situation with a patient, always resort to your sense of humor.

Then I went on to become a friend. Billy and I played golf together for many years. And probably one of the most wonderful moments I had when I was in medical school, was when I was called down to his office thinking I was in trouble, only to find that he looked up at me and said “Friend, what are you doing at two o'clock?” and I said “Billy, I've got to do this that and the other thing,” and he said (well I didn’t say Billy, I said Dr. Thomas) and he said, “You need to go qualify for the Club Championship.” And that really set into motion a wonderful relationship that I had with Billy on the golf course. I don’t know if you all know, he was on the varsity golf team at the University of Florida, and he was the former Gainesville Country Club, Club Champion. And he was probably the most tenacious competitor that I have ever been around. He would never give up. He basically pursued you, both physically and verbally, until the very end of the match, and was just a wonderful, wonderful person to play golf with.

Then when I went into private practice, Billy became my colleague. It was always wonderful to get a referral from him, and being a member of the old school, he would always call you himself, and explain to you why he wanted you to see this patient, and what he thought should happen. And of course it was very rare that he wasn’t exactly right.

And then, the greatest honor that a graduate, a medical student, a house officer, can have bestowed upon him, is when one of your professors asks you to become his doctor. That happened to me, I think it was 2002, or 2003, when Brenda asked me to take over Billy’s care. Billy was already into his journey with Alzheimer’s disease, I think he had probably been at the journey about two or three years, but he still had, of course, his wonderful sense of humor, and there was still much of the old Billy.

And Brenda and I spent a lot of time wondering, what would Billy be like as he travelled this road? It was a very, very different experience than perhaps what a lot of people would have imagined. Here this very sharp-tongued, somewhat selfish, somewhat demanding, individual, who became a very loving, considerate, respectful patient, and really a dream to take care of during his final years. And Brenda used to say to me, “Why couldn’t Billy have been like this more in his earlier years!?”

And I think that in the final analysis, Billy was one of those patients that you as a physician say, “Ask not what you do for your patient, but what that patient does for you.” I learned a tremendous amount from Billy in the first ten or fifteen years of my medical career, and I learned just as much in the last ten years of his life.

Billy was inspiring to me, and to some of my other colleagues, and we have created a yearly event we call “The Affair to Remember.” It is a get-together where we honor care-givers in this community, and we give out a number of awards. The main award is the William C. Thomas, Jr. award for expertise, research, and the care of folks with Alzheimer’s disease, and we have three or four of the award recipients in this room today.

We are here to honor Billy, but there is another person that also needs to be honored, and Brenda that is you. Brenda Thomas, most certainly deserves to be honored, and her name will be added to the award, so from now on Brenda, it will be the “William C. and Brenda Thomas Award,” to be given every year. And I think this is very appropriate. Brenda, you are a wonderful, wonderful care giver, and a joy to work with, and I want you to always know that.

Clark, that’s all I've got to say. I loved him like a father, so let me turn it over to a true son.

text from memorial bulletin

Dr. Heilman at the reception

Kenneth Heilman, Memorial service reception

Holy Trinity Church, January 6, 2011

audio of Dr. Heilman’s remarks

comments delivered by Kenneth Heilman at the
memorial service reception, 1/6/2011

There have been a lot of stories told about Dr. Thomas. I had the opportunity to play golf with him, so let me just tell you one very, very brief golf story.

I went out with him, and he hit a ball that ended up in somebody else’s divot, way down.

So I said, “Dr. Thomas, pick it up and move it.”


“Look, we’re not playing for money, just pick it up and move it.”

“No. You don’t do that in golf.”

He never would change his lie. Everything had to be done, absolutely strict. While I always learned that, well once in awhile, a little *foot wedge* was alright and okay. But after that, when I played with him, I never used a foot wedge, because I was terrified that all my grants would be taken away, and be gone!

He became, at one time, the director of the GRECC at the VA, the Geriatric Research and Education Clinical Center, where he developed what the aging research was going to focus on. And what a shame in some ways, to be afflicted with the disease of aging, because he did everything he could to fight those diseases. And of course as you all know, he also became the chief of staff at the VA, where again, he always invited excellence. He was my hero.

The last story I want to tell you, is one time he came to my office to talk with me, and he saw a picture of New York hospital and Cornell on my wall. And he said, “You were up there?” And I said “Yeah, I was up there.” “You gotta be kidding me!” So I was wondering whether he thought that all the people in Cornell had southern accents, and the people from Brooklyn could never go there.

But it turned out in many ways, even though he was never formally a professor of mine, or a teacher, and I didn’t go to medical school with him, he was still one of my mentors. And the thing he taught me, which is so important, is that our job is to invite people to excellence, to be straight and honest, and to invite them to excellence. And nobody was a better example of that, than Dr. Thomas. Thank you Dr. Thomas.

Dr. Heilman’s comments below were published in the Gainesville Sun.

by Kenneth Heilman, 1/3/2011

I met Dr. Thomas shortly after I came to Gainesville in 1970.

From the time I first met him I knew he was a special man. Not because he called me Heilman for 40 years, but because he had many gifts that strongly influenced people’s lives. The best way I can describe his personality is that when I played golf with him I never saw him improve his golf lie, no matter how bad it was. He was always honest and straight, in golf and in life. After we played our first round I noticed how very skilled he was at golf and asked him why he did not become a pro. He responded, “My mother would not hear of it....and besides you can’t help people by playing golf.”

Shortly, after coming to Gainesville, we received funding from the VA to perform research. He was the Chief of Research at the VA, and he was very aware that medical research, more than any other activity performed by humankind, reduces disability and suffering. Thus, he did all he could do to promote research. For example, under his directorship he hired people like Alice Cullu as an editor to help people write papers and grants, and he was blessed to be able to get joy form other people’s success.

Few things in life cause as much pain as a renal stone, and Dr. Thomas was one of the leading investigators in learning how to treat this terrible disease. In addition, as a clinician, educator, investigator and administrator, including the Chief of Staff at the VA and Director of the GRECC, he also had many other successes...including marrying a wonderful woman, Brenda and being blessed with a wonderful family.

My wife always reminds me that all life is cyclic, with a beginning and end. I tell her I know, I know, I know, but I do not like it. I miss many people. Dr. Thomas had a very full and meaningful cycle, but like the many other people who have known and worked with him, I will certainly miss this very special man.

Thank you Dr. Thomas. May God bless you.

Additional comments at the reception from Clark, Sharron and
Valerie are being transcribed and will be added soon.

from Clark Thomas, 12/31/2010

Only recently, I learned that my dad’s early medical students honored him with the unusual, and not so complimentary sounding nickname, “The Barracuda” or “Billy Barracuda.” I was curious about it, so while preparing for his memorial service, on a whim I typed “Dr. W. C. Thomas” and “barracuda” into Google, not really thinking that anything would show up. To my surprise I discovered this great interview with Dr. Mark Barrow, one of my dad’s first medical students, interviewed by Dr. Samuel Proctor in 1997. It explains the nicknames and the respect they embodied:

Barrow: Dr. W.C. Thomas was a wonderful teacher. He wanted to be an internal medicine specialist, so he went back to Hopkins and trained there, then he came back to be on the original faculty of the medical school, and also do research as an endocrinologist.

Proctor: He told me he is trying to retire.

Barrow: He has been saying that for years. He will never retire. He putts around with it. Dr. Thomas was a good bedside teacher, but he was totally different. We used to call him “Billy Barracuda” because he could snap your head off, but he did not mean it in a belligerent way. For example, he would ask you, What do you think about this patient’s problem or what do you think about this patient’s EKG or their lab report? You would tell him what you thought, and he would say, Barrow, that is the dumbest thing I have ever heard anybody say!

    If you were not expecting that, it was sort of intimidating. On the other hand, once you got to know him, he could be going along saying something, and we said—and we did this all the time—Dr. Thomas, what you just said does not make any sense to me at all. Instead of him getting angry or puffing up, he would say, Wait a minute—why do you think that? Maybe you are right!

    So he could take it just as he gave it, so there was this tremendous interchange. So could Jape Taylor (nicknamed “The Fang”). I mean, you could look at them and say, I do not believe a word you are saying. That makes no sense to me. I do not believe that. I do not buy that at all. And they would accept it. There were other great teachers, but those two are the teachers that stick out in my mind.

Wish I’d discovered this interview years earlier. It is so insightful about the dynamics of teaching medicine that my dad loved so much. And his “Billy Barracuda” nickname is softened into an obvious compliment with the knowledge that Jape “The Fang” Taylor shared a similar moniker of respect.

When I showed the interview to my mom she loved remembering those days, and added, “Yes, Billy and Jape Taylor were the best of friends and often talked over the students, their progress, etc., always very interested in their individual welfare and future as doctors. As the piece says, they were unusual in their time, and I think the young doctors really did appreciate them, and did not hesitate to ask them for advice.”

So my dad, Dr. Wm. C. Thomas, Jr. “certainly was” unusual for his time. And he will be missed.

-Clark Thomas, Nashville

Here’s a link to this obituary & guestbook at the Gainesville Sun.

— more PHOTOS and words still coming —