Emory Report
September 4, 2007
Volume 60, Number 2

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September 4, 2007
Dedicated to discovery

By Kim Urquhart

James Thomas may be leaving Emory — retiring after nearly 50 years with the School of Medicine — but his legacy will remain. Little did Thomas know, as he spent his last week training the research specialist who will take over his work on the Gonococcal Isolate Surveillance Project and gently removing each photo of his five grandchildren from his workstation, that his colleagues were stealthily organizing a surprise send-off. The celebration included the dedication of Carlos del Rio’s lab in the Woodruff Extension Building at Grady Memorial Hospital to honor Thomas’ lifetime contributions to Emory.

Friends, family and colleagues past and present gathered to wish him well, and a plaque with Thomas’ portrait awaited its space on the lab wall. The letters poured in from people whose lives he had in some way touched over the years. They cited Thomas’ strength of character, his eagerness to learn and willingness to accept challenges, his easy nature as “a born diplomat.” President Jim Wagner saluted Thomas for “the remarkable achievement of your career.”

For the past decade, Thomas has worked with del Rio, the principal investigator of a project funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that monitors trends in antimicrobial susceptibilities of strains of gonorrhea. Nationally, Thomas’ work as the senior research technician has been critical for the drafting of sexually transmitted disease treatment guidelines by the CDC. Thomas’ commitment to his job has provided continuity and depth of experience, regularly helping Emory to receive the highest rating among the five national sites for the project.

Thomas joined Emory in 1959 as an animal caretaker. He took great pride in caring for the mice and rabbits, and keeping the laboratory animal room clean, even for the ferrets — who the doctor Thomas once worked for, William Marine, admits “are probably the meanest and worst-smelling of laboratory animals.” Marine’s laboratory technician noticed Thomas’ curiosity and potential for learning that went beyond caring for laboratory animals. Thomas soon moved into the lab itself, where he conducted tests for influenza antibodies. After about 20 years of virology work, he spent the remainder of his career in microbiology.

In an era of musical-chair employees, what has kept Thomas loyal to one institution all these years?
“I’ve been here 47 years, so I’d have to like it,” he says with a chuckle. He says he enjoys the challenge of lab work, but what has really made his job worth doing were his colleagues. “The people I work around are fantastic. I’ve been blessed to work with some lovely people.”

Thomas began his career at Emory at a rather unusual age: he was a junior at Trinity High School, now Decatur High. “I’d get out of school and ride to work with my teacher who lived near Grady. She’d drop me off on the corner.”

The rides to work were soon shared with Lizzie, his wife of “40-plus” years. “The years fly by, and you’re so happy you don’t count,” Thomas says with a mischievous grin. Lizzie worked as a cardiac technician at Grady before she retired. It’s clear that Thomas misses her. “We used to come in [to work] together. Coming in alone is kind of depressing,” he says. And spending more time with his wife is one of the aspects of retirement he looks forward to most. “Both of us, just sitting around and enjoying each others’ company.” While Thomas welcomes the opportunity to relax, he is quick to add: “There is no way I can get bored. My wife is going to be finding a whole lot of stuff for me to do.”

His new motto might be “Gone Fishing.” Thomas, an avid fisherman, is looking forward to spending more time on the water. A 7.5-pound bass mounted in the den of his South DeKalb home is a reminder of his days on the tournament trail as a semi-professional fisherman. He plans to take his grandchildren fishing, like he did years ago for Marine’s son, Steve, who is now 47 but still remembers vividly the time he spent with Thomas. Thomas will continue to be active in his church, where he is a deacon. During the holiday season, Thomas can be found basting and selling his famous fried turkeys. And “there’s nothing like live football” for the Falcons fan, who plans to take in some games.

Like he has done all these years with Marine since his former colleague left Emory for Colorado back in 1975, Thomas intends to keep in touch. “Dr. William Marine, Pam Terry, Jonas Shulman, the late Dr. Sommer Thompson, Carolyn Ramsey and Dr. Tom Sellers — these people have been friends and more than friends to me in my life and doing lab work. I have a great deal of respect for these people, they’ve been a big part of my life.”