The Rev. James E. Thomas, 63, Oak Hill center chaplain

June 25, 1996|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

The Rev. James Edward Thomas had a simple way of communicating with troubled youths at the Oak Hill center in Laurel. He would sit them down, look them straight in the eye and listen to them.

"He'd always listen before he talked and he'd hear everything they had to say before he said a word," said James Baker, a longtime co-worker at Oak Hill. "That was one of his main assets -- listening -- and it worked."

That asset will be missed at Oak Hill where Mr. Thomas, 63, held part-time positions as chaplain and counselor. The Columbia resident died of cardiac arrest Wednesday at Howard University Hospital in Washington.

In 1983, Mr. Thomas became a full-time chaplain and counselor at Oak Hill, a federally funded facility for males 13 to 19. He retired last year but stayed on as a part-timer.

"He was Poppa Thomas to the kids," said his wife, the former Jean Walker, who married him in 1957. "He just liked reaching out to people. He had a unique way of explaining the Gospel. He always seemed like someone you knew all of your life."

The Baltimore native graduated from Douglass High School in 1952 and studied history and politics at Virginia Union University in Richmond, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1956. Five years later, he earned a master's degree in divinity from Virginia Union Seminary and, in 1980, a doctorate in divinity from Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg.

He had been a Baptist minister since he was 22. He was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Hampton, Va., from 1956 to 1966 and co-pastor at Enon Baptist Church on Edmondson Avenue and Schroeder Street in West Baltimore from 1966 to 1971.

"He was a very forceful speaker who was able to prepare and deliver a sermon that was very inspiring," said Odell W. Payne, a longtime member of Enon Baptist. "He had a personality that was very inviting, very pleasant."

In 1971, Mr. Thomas helped found the Garland Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, which he served as co-pastor until 1983, when he returned to Maryland. During those years, he also was director of alumni affairs at Virginia Union University.

In the 1960s, he was active in the civil rights movement and helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, said the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, a longtime friend who represented the District of Columbia in Congress. "He had a commitment to the disadvantaged," Mr. Fauntroy said. "He enjoyed working with those with two strikes against them."

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. today at New Bethel Baptist Church in Washington.

Other survivors include a daughter, Jacquelyn Thomas of Columbia; a granddaughter, Janese Thomas of Columbia; and a sister, Celestine Reid of Abingdon.

Pub Date: 6/25/96

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