Changing Course: A WLU Retirement

When David J. Thomas, originally from Burgettstown, PA, first came to West Liberty State College (WLSC) in 1970, he was a sophomore at Weirton Madonna High School (MHS). His early entry into WLSC was due to his being a participant in the Upward Bound Program. Upward Bound was a federally-funded program which provided “high school students from low-income families the opportunities to succeed in their precollege performance and ultimately in their higher education pursuits,” as part of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (the War on Poverty Program) during the Johnson administration. Throughout his two-year stint in the Upward Bound Program, Thomas took introductory collegiate-level classes in the humanities and the social sciences.

While attending Upward Bound, Thomas would meet some of his life-long friends, to-be colleagues, and drinking buddies at WLSC: Les Jones, Jack Harris, Jack Hattman, Art Mezerski, and Mario Triveri. When Thomas was graduated from Weirton Madonna High School in 1972, he was already a sophomore at WLSC, and he was also awarded the Joseph McGlynn Award (for exemplary Christian attitude) at MHS.

Electing to double-major in English and History, Thomas was graduated from WLSC in 1975, the same year he was named Mr. Hilltopper by the Student Government. Thomas recollected two memorable anecdotes during his time at WLSC. One was winning a dance contest with then-classmate Marilyn Weirheim, currently a counselor at John Marshall High School, netting them a case of beer and a twenty-five dollar check for their graceful rendition of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.” Another incident involved Thomas’s allegedly “streaking” through the Student Union one warm spring afternoon, an action for which Thomas was to be taken before the Judiciary Board to face possible expulsion. However, when the Dean of Students testified that he had recognized Thomas as an alleged streaker by the yellow visor he was wearing in a picture on the front page of The Trumpet, which depicted the alleged streaking, Thomas pointed out to the hearing committee that the picture was in black-and-white, so yellow was not an identifiable color. Shortly thereafter, the case was dismissed, and Thomas, donning his ever-present yellow visor, departed the hearing with a smirky grin.

Having been offered five full-time graduate assistantships while pursuing a Master’s degree in English, Thomas did a one-semester stint at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, KY. However, being a long-haired, liberal hippie in the buckle of the Bible-belt was a bit of a culture-shock; therefore, Thomas suspended his academic pursuit and became a reclamation laborer and truck driver for Island Creek Coal Company (nka, Nello L. Teer Company), located in Clarksburg, WV. Working as a laborer and living out of hotels convinced Thomas of the need to resume his academic studies.

In 1977, Thomas wrote to the graduate school at Marshall University in Huntington, WV, that he had erred in his original choice of graduate assistantships and humbly requested a reinstatement of the offer from the Thundering Herd program. As it turned out, someone had dropped out of the English MA program that summer, and Thomas accepted the re-offer from Marshall. During his year at MU, Thomas earned his M. A. in American Literature and taught Freshman Composition classes as a requirement of his assistantship. After leaving MU in 1977, Thomas married the former Paula J. Waller (Tomasik) of Wheeling, and together they had a son, James, in 1978.

With his Master’s in hand, Thomas applied to a dozen-or-so colleges in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, but no offers came. So, he worked as a pricing manager—a job for which he had absolutely no qualifications—for Branchland Pipe and Supply Company in Huntington, WV from 1977 to 1979.

In 1979, Thomas accepted a job offer to teach developmental English at Glenville State College (GSC) in Glenville, WV. His initial annual contract was a whopping $11,500 to teach five developmental English classes per semester and maintain a writing lab of twenty hours per week simultaneously. Hourly, that worked out to be—oh, no, never mind! While teaching at GSC, Thomas entered a doctoral program in English at West Virginia University (WVU) and worked toward his Ph. D. degree by taking evening and summer classes year-round. After four years, Thomas left Glenville in 1983, and took a part-time job with Wheeling College (nka, Wheeling Jesuit University), teaching composition and introductory literature classes. At that time, he and his family moved to the Wheeling area and have remained since.

While residing in the Wheeling area, Thomas was actively engaged in community activities. He was a graduate of Leadership Wheeling in 1994, and he served as a member of the Wheeling Human Rights Commission from 1999-2005. In 2002, Thomas co-founded WE: KARE (Wheeling Environmental: Keeping and Restoring the Environment), and together with a half a dozen others who had been taking environmental classes at the Schrader Environmental Center, the group cleaned up litter in the Woodsdale-area. The group officially disbanded in 2013. Also, Thomas has been an active in reading poetry, giving lectures, and making presentations at programs offered through the Ohio County Public Library: Lunch with Books, the People’s University, and Wheeling Arts Fest. About his involvement in these programs, Sean P. Duffy, Programming, Publicity, and Archives Coordinator at the Ohio County Public Library has offered this observation:

“David Thomas made a lasting impression on me as a young man. I remembered him as an effective and genuine teacher of literature. Years later when, as a library program coordinator, I learned that poetry is a tough sell in the information age, I called upon David for help. He did not disappoint. In him, I found a dedicated ally in the effort to keep the art of poetry viable and relevant in the free marketplace of community entertainment. Whether organizing a tribute to Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman or planning a spoken-word event for the annual Wheeling Arts Fest, I could always count on David to help me keep poetry as a subtle but compelling voice amid the cacophony of music, performance, and visual arts. Indeed, even when I have faltered, David has always been there to remind me to keep the spoken word alive. To paraphrase his favorite poet [Walt Whitman], David dismisses what insults his soul. And I am grateful for his poetic perseverance.”

In the Orwellian year of 1984, Thomas won two significant writing awards: The J. Paul Brawner Expository Writing Award from WVU for his essay “D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Snake’: The Edenic Paradigm Inverted”—later to be published in College English (Spring 1986, 13.2)–and the Wheeling College Faculty Writing Award for a paper entitled “’Desolation Row’: A Journey into Bob Dylan’s Wasteland,” a comparison of the song by Dylan—the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature—and T. S. Eliot’s 1922 masterpiece, The Waste Land.

In 1985, when long-time English professor, Betty Barrier, retired, Thomas was offered her previous position and happily joined the ranks at his alma mater, WLSC—a mere decade after graduating from the Hilltop. When he began his career at WLSC, Dave—as he preferred that his students call him—was an instructor who taught all Freshman Composition classes. From 1985-2016, Dave quipped that he had spent much of his time “battling comma splices and pronoun-antecedent disagreements in students’ papers.” But, apparently, his influence went somewhat beyond his efforts in correcting errors in grammar, mechanics, and usage. Several of his more successful students have weighed in on Dave’s impact upon them:

Dr. Matthew J. Smith (Class of 1993), Director and Professor, School of Communication at Radford University offered the following: “Dave Thomas had a profound influence on my approach to teaching. From my earliest days in the classroom, I would find myself asking WWDD: What Would Dave Do? I patterned my strategies towards organizing my lectures, my interaction with students in the classroom, and the level of detail offered in my feedback after the model I witnessed Dave exercise at West Liberty. Today, more than a quarter century after I was his student, I strive to make my students feel engaged, welcomed, and intellectually stimulated as Dave did for me.”

Dr. Christina Fisanick (Class of 1996 and 2016 Inductee to the WLU Wall of Honor) made this statement: “Although Dave’s instruction provided me with an important subject-area foundation, the most useful thing I learned from Dave was likely unintentional. Through observation and insight, I learned from Dave HOW to teach American literature and HOW to teach poetry. I have used those tools each day in my classroom for twenty years.”

Dr. W. Scott Hanna (Class of 1996) weighed in with this observation: “I have had the unique and fortunate opportunity to know Dr. Dave Thomas as both a teacher and a colleague. Having been a student in several of his classes from 1992-1996 and subsequently having gone through master’s- and doctoral-level course work at other universities, I can truly say that Dave is on the short list of the two or three most influential professors I have ever had. What made Dave and effective teacher—beyond his expertise in this subject matter, beyond the breadth of his experience in writing and publishing, and beyond his meticulous grading and instruction in the rules of grammar—was his genuine love and respect for his students, carried through in his passion for teaching them literature and the art of writing poetry. In addition to impression on me as a teacher, Dave has been there as a supportive mentor for me during the entirety of my teaching career in both secondary and higher education, which began in 1999. Although he will be truly missed at WLU, he achieved the greatest thing a teacher can throughout a life’s work of teaching—he changed peoples’ lives for the better—including mine.”

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And Gail Adams (Class of 2004), English teacher at Wheeling Park High School, offered this reflection: “Dr. David J. Thomas (or Dave, as his students know him) is the consummate educator. Through him, I learned to teach with joy, with passion, and with love. Dave is my role-model, my mentor, and my friend. From him, I learned the importance of relationships with students as the conduit through which all learning flows. From him, I learned that the teacher-student relationship does not end when the bell rings or the semester ends. From him, I learned to make every student feel special. Little did I know in 2004 when I earned my degree that his lessons would become the foundation of my year of service as the 2015 West Virginia Teacher of the Year. My message was one of the importance of relationships in order for learning to take place. Maya Angelou once said, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,’ and I used that message as I spoke throughout West Virginia. Dr. Dave Thomas was part of each of those speeches because I have never forgotten how he made me feel as a forty-five-year-old housewife who decided that she wanted to teach English.”

While at West Liberty University, Dave garnered a number of significant awards: Faculty Development Award (presentations and publications), 1993-1994; Excellence in Teaching Award, 2000-2001; and four Professor of the Year Awards (1991-1992, 1993-1994, 1997-1998, and 2012-2013). Of these awards, Dave has posited, “I am most humbled and pleased by the four Professor of the Year Awards because they were initiated by and voted upon by the student body.” During his career at West Liberty, Dave was able to maintain consistently high enrollments and even higher student evaluations, as President Emeritus John P. McCullough has confirmed:

“Throughout the many years that I have known and worked with Dr. David Thomas, one element that has consistently stood out is the genuine pride that he takes in his classroom teaching. That pride is not misdirected, and it is not unjustified. In addition to being formally recognized by our students on numerous occasions as West Liberty’s Professor of the Year, Dave’s course evaluations (conducted each semester by his students) have consistently been among the very highest in the entire university. Such positive recognition and evaluations don’t just happen: they are the products of the effort, preparedness, research, and hard work that Dave put into each and every class presentation, and they represent the value that he placed on the teaching-learning process. Dave’s many students have benefitted from the strong passion the he brought to his teaching. That same commitment and passion can be found in the many poems written by my friend, the multi-talented Professor Thomas. Dave’s well-earned retirement will produce a void this will be difficult to fill on our beautiful hilltop campus.”

Practicing what he had taught, Dave has published over 100 articles and poems in various journals and anthologies, such as American Anthology of Southern Poetry, American Poetry Anthology, American Poetry Premiere, Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, College English, English Journal, The Little Magazine, The New American Poetry Anthology, and The Robert Frost Review. Also, his first book of poetry, . . .only the trying . . ., was published in 1998. The title of this volume of poetry is taken from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. His next book of poems—one of his many bucket-list items–will be forthcoming shortly. This next volume will be focused upon his recent poetic efforts in writing vignettes about the Wheeling-area’s curiosities: “Moondog,” “driving route 88,” and “Newspaper Hawker” have already been published; however, other poems focus in upon the pan-handlers at the bottom of Exit 2, a meter-maid, the farmer’s-marketers, the garage-sale fanatics, the street-walkers who linger downtown, and the gas and oil trucks that rumble and rattle down and up National Road.

However, Dave, being a vocal advocate of student and faculty rights, was not without his detractors during his tenure at West Liberty. Dave recalled one particular incident in which he had ruffled the feathers of a former WLSC president (whose name does not warrant mentioning here). A student of Dave’s—very stupidly—left an alcohol-fueled, profanity-laced voice-mail message for an administrator. As a result, the president wanted the student to be thrown out of school the very next day. When the student told Dave of his plight, Dave pointed out to the student that he had the right to due process before any eviction could occur. When the president subsequently learned that Dave had informed the student of his rights and had also dared to agree to be the student’s advocate during the judicial hearing, the president became livid! The president smugly and threateningly reminded Dave in a short phone call that he was “just an employee.” Consequently, “the president would not speak to me for over one year. Oddly, at that time, I was serving on the WLSC Alumni Board of Directors, and his publicly ignoring me while greeting by hand all of the other members of the board became obvious. I believe that he thought he was teaching me some kind of lesson by trying to embarrass me,” Dave recollected. Paradoxically, the president had not apparently learned his lesson. A few years later when he was the president of a state university in Georgia, he threw a student out of the institution for daring to protest against a construction project which the administrator had advanced. Three years after the expulsion, the student successfully sued the university for three million dollars, and, soon thereafter, the president resigned.

In addition to his B. A. and M. A. degrees, Dave also earned his Ph. D. from West Virginia University in 1992 in Modern American Literature. His dissertation, under the tutelage of super-scholar Dr. Ruel E. Foster, was entitled “The Hemingway Women: An Jungian Analysis,” and it was a treatise which defended Hemingway against decades-long accusations of misogyny. The dissertation was later published by UMI Press (1993). Moreover, he earned his Master’s Naturalist Certification in 2013 from the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.

When asked to reflect upon his most pleasing memories of West Liberty and his teaching on the collegiate-level for over a third of a century, Dave ruminated: “Tempered by humility, I am most proud of having touched the lives—in positive ways, I hope– of an estimated 6,000 students during my teaching career. And I am also pleased that of those many students, quite a few have chosen to pursue careers in teaching English: a coven of college professors and at least seventy-two in elementary, middle-school, and secondary schools,” most of them in Ohio County and its contiguous counties—Belmont, Brooke, Jefferson, Marshall, and Washington. “I would like to believe that my teaching was somehow an inspiration to them in their choosing such careers,” Dave added. As one alumna, an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, Leighanne (Heironimus) Heisel, (Class of 1995 [Communication] and Class of 1999 [English Education]) has put it:

“When I learned that Dave planned to retire, I reflected upon the effect that he has had on my education and career path that began nearly twenty-five years ago at WLSC. My first class with him turned out to be a very witty, challenging, and engaging experience. Dave has maintained a reputation of accomplished research, student advocacy, and delivery of exceptional lectures. I could not name a faculty member who would fight more for what is fair. Nearly twenty years since WLSC and I parted ways, Dave and I have remained in contact, which is a testament to the strong bonds that he has built with his students during his tenure at WLSC. The campus will now be a lot less vivid without Dave’s colorful presence.”

“It is noteworthy,” Dave added, “that I had based many of my teaching strategies and techniques on those exhibited by my life-long friend and mentor, Jack Hattman [Professor of English at WLSC/WLU from 1963-2010]. His using humor and wit and his creating a relaxed, welcoming classroom atmosphere in conveying literature impressed me as necessary and beneficial to a sustainable learning environment.”

Dave then added, “I am also proud of writing a grant in conjunction with REAP (Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan) through the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection in 2013 for $24,700 to help kick-start WLU’s recycling program, which currently diverts about 3.5 tons of recyclables each month from the local landfills.” As a commitment to his “green-thinking,” Dave served as chair of both the Faculty Senate’s Green Initiatives Committee and the President’s Council of Sustainability during his final four years. Also, in his final years, Dave initiated and organized an annual program at WLU which was referred to as WLUEED: West Liberty University Environmental Education Day, which comprised about two dozen “green organizations” coming to campus to share their information and wares with the campus community.

“Any of the successes which I have enjoyed,” Dave stated, “are the sum of the associations which I have had with my accomplished students, my helpful colleagues, and some of the most respected and admired administrators (E. Nelson Cain, Clyde D. Campbell, and John P. McCullough) ever. No one–and I mean no one—ever accomplishes anything worthwhile alone. Success always blossoms as a result of a group-effort! And for that cooperative effort which I have experienced at West Liberty, I will be always grateful.”

Dave currently resides in Woodsdale with his wife Edye and his pound-puppy, Cerby, or as Dave refers to her, his “bi-polar, tri-colored quadruped—a pudgy furball of joy.”


AUTHOR’S NOTE: Much of the aforementioned information was derived from interviews with Dave and documents provided by him.