Working one year in a factory was enough to convince Charles Thomas to find something more, so he enrolled at Jackson Community College.
Thomas graduated from Willow Run High in 1962 and, lacking funds for college, went to work. “College was one of my priorities because the year I did not go to school, I worked in a factory, and being on the assembly line, was not my idea of a job that was going to get you through the rest of your life. I also worked in an iron foundry, which was very dirty and unhealthy, so going to college was really very important.”
At that time, the College was still downtown, with a close-knit student body. “We all kind of knew each other, there was more of a camaraderie there, almost like an extended high school,” Thomas said.
Playing on a men’s basketball team at Jackson College led all the way to the national championships. It was there Thomas was spotted by Gonzaga University, who offered him a full scholarship. He earned his bachelor’s degree in medical technology from Gonzaga in 1968, the time of the Vietnam War. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where medical technology was one of the available fields. He became a lab specialist in the Air Force for nine years, becoming the officer in charge of clinical laboratory services at Barksdale Air Force Base.
After Vietnam ended, Thomas enrolled at the University of Detroit Mercy to become a physician assistant, then worked two years for the prison system in Jackson, then 30 years at Michigan State University in the surgery department. For the past four years, he’s served as assistant men’s basketball coach at his alma mater, the first three alongside his son, coach Carl Thomas.
“Jackson for me, and for a lot of other kids coming out of high school that don’t have a real strong academic background, it helps them get their foot in the hole and lets them understand that yeah, I can do the work if I put in the time. They don’t get swallowed up like they may at the universities.”