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July 19, 2004

Eric Thomas was always there to offer a helping hand

By Ken Doctor

Those of us lucky enough to have known Eric Thomas remember the same experience.

"In many now-unseen ways ... Eric, a proud Banana Slug, will be with us as we work together to push forward his favorite campus."

--Ken Doctor
Alumni Council president

The first time you met Eric, you got a sense of the man, and it was sense that would always hold true. He’d offer his large, warm hand and his broad smile. He’d welcome you. As we would later find out, he would not only offer his friendship, he received it warmly in return.

That’s who Eric always was, a guy who offered a helping hand to whoever needed it. His hand always seemed to be out there. A helping hand to his fellow alumni councilors. A helping hand to would-be students, unsure about moving away from home to a campus in the redwoods. A helping hand to chancellors and UC presidents with whom he worked in his leadership roles. His hand touched so many just on or involved with our campus that many of us who attended his memorial services in Sacramento were amazed to learn that his helping hand extended in many directions away from UCSC as well. Where he found the time we’ll never know.

Just in the last month or so, I’d seen Eric three times. The last time involved the typical Eric trip to Santa Cruz. He’d left his very involving job as early as he could, at the State Treasurer’s office in Sacramento, with his wife, Leilani (Oakes '84). He couldn’t miss M.R.C. Greenwood’s going-away party at the Cocoanut Grove. So he and Leilani braved the freeway traffic, back and forth in a single night, staying at the evening’s conclusion to chat with friends. He burned up those roads so frequently, it’s too bad he couldn’t get frequent-flier miles.

In late May, he once again hosted our Legislative Day UCSC dinner in Sacramento, in which we pulled together UC funding advocates. This year, we didn’t ask him to perform his magic tricks--he found time for this amateur pursuit as well. After dinner, Eric, Carolyn Christopherson, our alumni association executive director, Dom Siababa, the alumni council’s executive vice-president, returned to the hotel bar. Our topic until midnight: how to push forward alumni initiatives and the campus as a whole over the next couple of years.

Finally, we were lucky enough to have Eric join us at our alumni council executive retreat, at my house.

We joked at the retreat that we couldn’t imagine next year, when Eric was scheduled to finally leave the alumni council after most of a decade of work. We had no idea how soon we’d have to do the imagining. As past president of the alumni council--giving me an extremely tough act to follow--Eric worked just as hard for the campus as he had as president. Among his few weaknesses was his inability to say, “no.” But then again, that made it so hard for anyone to say “no” to Eric, and we all profited from his UCSC advocacy.

As a leader Eric was emblematic of UCSC. We’re such a young campus, in physical age and in spirit, that Eric is the first person to have served as alumni council president and passed away. He embraced what many of us alums have taken from our UCSC experience: 1) make the world a better place one small act at a time, and 2) have a good time doing it.

He cared about so many things, improving excellence, scholarship aid, outreach and diversity. Eric believed, with his whole being, in the power of education. We talked about how education had made a difference in his parents’ lives and how intent he was that it would make a difference in the lives of his children, Tiger and Imani.

He cared about all students, and how the deserving students of California’s tomorrow could be helped to get the education they wanted and the state needed. And he cared particularly about advancing African-American students at Santa Cruz. So Eric and several of his fellow alums founded the whimsically named, seriously conceived, Black Escargot, for African-American alumni. Like many things he worked on, it survives him in good shape.

As I got ready to succeed Eric as president, he offered his helping hand in many ways. One conversation that resonated over the last week was about privilege. He told me what a privilege it had been for him to serve as alumni council president, to serve on the Alumni Associations of the University of California (the group on which all UC campus alumni presidents sit), to work with chancellors, professors, staff and students. He talked about how much he learned and how lucky he felt to get the opportunity.

Knowing Eric, you knew the words rang true.

In his name, we’ll carry on our work. Those of us privileged enough to know Eric will carry him with us. And for the wider community that didn’t get the chance, or hasn’t yet arrived on campus, we’re planning on honoring him in a couple of ways.

Working with Leilani , we’ve launched the Eric Thomas Memorial Scholarship Fund, which will fit under the Alumni Association Scholarship Fund umbrella. Second, a small group from the Alumni Council is working with the Oakes leadership to site a named bench at Oakes, his favorite campus location. We can picture it overlooking the bay, and some will remember the young Eric as an early-‘80s student, jammin’ with his friends at a nearby spot.

In many now-unseen ways, though, I trust, Eric, a proud Banana Slug, will be with us as we work together to push forward his favorite campus.

Fiat lux, Eric.

Fiat lux.


Ken Doctor is the current president of the Alumni Council. Contributions to the Eric Thomas Memorial Scholarship Fund, may be made out to UCSC Foundation, and sent to the attention of Jennifer Wood, Director of Development, Annual Fund and Colleges, Carriage House, Santa Cruz, CA 95064

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