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App State Mourns the Passing of Former Chancellor John E. Thomas

Former Appalachian State University Chancellor John E. Thomas outside Appalachian State University’s John E. Thomas Hall. Photo by Mike Rominger

By Jan Todd

John E. Thomas, who served as Appalachian State University’s chancellor from 1979–93, died Thursday, Sept. 2, at the age of 90.

“Words cannot adequately express the profound impact the passing of Dr. John Thomas has on the Appalachian Community,” said App State Chancellor Sheri Everts. “He was the embodiment of what it means to be a Mountaineer: kind, service-oriented and community-focused.

“His legacy of innovation — and his strong belief that teaching and research work hand in hand — will be upheld on our campus for centuries to come. He will forever occupy a special place in my heart and in the heart of our campus community.”

As a former chancellor, Thomas is remembered for recruiting a first-rate faculty — believing that strong, effective teaching should be supported by research and community service. John E. Thomas Hall on App State’s campus is named in his honor.

Under his leadership, App State:

  • Established the university’s first doctoral program, in educational leadership.
  • Formalized international exchange programs in a dozen countries including China, Russia, Mexico and Costa Rica.
  • Introduced An Appalachian Summer Festival — an annual celebration of the performing and visual arts.
  • Initiated the public transportation system now known as the AppalCART.
  • Built AppalNet, originally an eight-channel campus cable system, and a campuswide audio, video and data system.
  • Grew enrollment from 10,179 in 1979–80 to 12,092 in 1992–93.

Thomas joined the staff of App State in 1974 as vice chancellor for academic affairs. He held a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Kansas, and a Juris Doctor in law.

He served in the Navy ROTC at the University of Kansas and in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. Prior to coming to App State, Thomas worked seven years as an engineer at NASA and served as a faculty member at East Texas State University, now known as Texas A&M University-Commerce.

After retiring as chancellor in 1993, he returned in 1994 to teach for the next decade in the Department of Management in App State’s Walker College of Business.

Thomas is survived by his wife, Jan Thomas, and his children — Christa Cooper; Brandon Thomas ’92 ’98; and Dr. Scott Thomas ’96, who is a lecturer and lab manager at App State. Thomas was preceded in death by his son John L. Thomas.

Chancellor Francis T. Borkowski, left, gives John E. Thomas, chancellor emeritus, a copy of the latest edition of The Appalachian Faculty Emeriti. The 400-page publication is dedicated to Thomas. It contains approximately 160 photographs and more than 180 biographical sketches of Appalachian faculty (living and deceased) who have received emeriti status following retirement. The book also contains an abbreviated history of the university and information about the institutionÕs five presidents and chancellors. It was edited by Dr. Richard D. Howe, compliance officer for the university. The book is available for $20 from the Office of Compliance Programs at Appalachian State University. For more information, call 262-2124. (Appalachian photo by University Photographer Mike Rominger)
John E. Thomas, chancellor at Appalachian State University from 1979–93, boards the AppalCART, which was started as a shuttle service for students during his tenure in 1980. Photo courtesy of the Appalachian State University Historical Photographs Collection
Chancellor Emeritus John E. Thomas served as Appalachian State University’s Homecoming Grand Marshal in 2019. Photo by Marie Freeman

John E. Thomas, who served as chancellor at Appalachian State University from 1979–93, is pictured sitting at his desk in the B. B. Dougherty Administration Building on App State’s campus. Photo courtesy of the Appalachian State University Historical Photographs Collection