Thursday, October 1, 2009

Influences- Neal Thomas

To everyone who is following this blog, leaving comments, signing the guestbook or e-mailing me, thank you! Hearing from you all is such a joy! And for anyone attending the staff reunion this weekend, enjoy! We are there in spirit!

Steve Semmler took me to Quaker Lake for the first time in the summer of 1973, following our 8th grade year. I knew nothing about the place except that my mom had been there years before, and that Steve said it was cool. Upon our arrival, Steve was surprised to discover that Cal Geiger was no longer Camp Director, and that he had been replaced by a young man named Neal Thomas. To be honest, Steve was a little disappointed at the time. It really made very little difference that week, as Wallace Sills directed our camp and Neal was just around, fixing things and helping camp run smoothly. But knowing Neal Thomas would make an enormous difference in my life.

I grew to know Neal over the next few years as I progressed from camper, to Counselor-in-Training to summer staff. In many ways, we were opposites. Neal was always calm,always composed, slow to show emotion and always aware of the big picture. Neal could fix or build anything. I was young, loud, brash and always in the moment, and thought duct tape was a tool. Despite this, I had enormous respect for Neal. He had been a conscientious objector to the draft, and he lived out his "peace testimony" in his everyday life. He loved Quaker Lake and was constantly pushing to improve the facility and the programs. At a time when theology in NC Yearly Meeting was about as diverse as you can imagine, Neal always steered QLC to the center. In fact, his talks to the staff on how we had to be the camp for ALL of NCYM, doing nothing to offend either end of the theological spectrum, guided me through many tough times in the large churches I would serve later in my life. He was our boss, but he was also someone we could count on and turn to. And even on days when I did not deserve it, he always supported me and always showed me grace that could only come from a walk with Jesus. Neal Thomas walked that walk, and he shared it freely. It always amazed me that some on the theological "right" in the yearly meeting considered Neal too liberal. That only showed how little they knew him.

That is not to say that Neal was perfect! He was a trained EMT, but if a camper threw up, look out! Neal would be next! Somewhere along life's journey he had picked up the nickname "Quiver Lips." He told us that one Saturday morning when I was a camper after some girls had water ballooned our cabin. In those days the cabins had screens along the top, and they had pounded the screens (and my top bunk!) and soaked us. It would have been a wonderful prank, except for one small issue- the force of the balloons hitting the screens knocked them out. By the time we arrived at breakfast the next morning, Neal was furious, and the lips were indeed quivering. We all got a stern lecture on respecting property (that means you, Tammy!) and then it was all forgotten. It was, thankfully, one of the few times over my 21 years of being around Neal that I saw him really angry. The lesson was profound, however, and over the years I became a fanatic about respecting property and not wasting food or other items. Neal was a sneaky teacher- you learned without realizing you were being taught.

After I returned from New England to NC in 1986, my relationship with Neal changed. We became great friends. I loved volunteering at camp and serving on the Camp Planning Committee to help hire staff and plan the camp themes each year. We traveled to Indiana for a Conference on Quaker Camping and attended the National Youth Workers Convention together. We would gather at his and Susie's home at QLC and play Trivial Pursuit (no matter what you may hear, the guys always won!). Every time I ever needed a reference or a friend, Neal was there. One of my greatest disappointments was that his last summer, 1994, I could not volunteer because it was my first year in Kissimmee. I had been with him his first year; I was sorry to miss his last.

Neal Thomas is Quaker Lake to me. The influence he had on my life cannot be explained in a blog. My entire ministry was driven by his example and his encouragement. Whenever I doubted myself, I often thought of something he once said to me: "Carl, you have a gift. When you get your guitar and start leading music, even the junior high boys start to sing. Anyone who can get junior high boys to sing has a gift." Moments like that one still move me all these years later. So thank you, Neal, from myself and hundreds of others who were influenced by you over the years. You showed me what it means to walk in Light. You, Susie, Doug and Martha made us all feel like family. Marilyn and I hope you know that you are loved. It almost makes me sorry for the morning we used food dye and made Neal green eggs and ham to test his gag reflex...but not quite!

Because of Jesus,


  1. thanks again for the great memories and if my memory serves me right, I believe you should have named Becky and Beth in that blog along with me. That was one of our most famous moments that was so much fun until we found out the screen broke.Love and miss you guys, Tammy

  2. Yeah, Yeah.... you are making me feel terrible after years of remembering how perfect that prank was! :-) I remember how AWFUL Becky felt and I didn't regret it at all- at the time. I LOVED Neal and would never had wanted to make him so angry. I tried to convince myself he was just play acting mad so that I didn't have to feel guilty! :-(
    And, Tammy, I cannot believe you didn't remember I was one of your cohorts as well... good times, good times... well- maybe not so good. I remember we had to go around and fix the screens!! I do remember that! A good response... he was always fair and MORE than reasonable.
    Remember when you all came up the hill for breakfast with your clothes on backwards?
    Heather is doing a great job at QLC now... a wonderful job!

  3. I am so sorry I forgot you were one of the destoyers. I know, we all felt horrible that we had destroyed property, but so proud that we pulled one off on the guys. Our little innocent group never did anything wrong.

  4. You were an innocnt group? You felt guilty? HA! Try sleeping through the night in a soggy sleeping bag, then tell me how innocent you were! Seriously, it was a great prank pulled off by some of the best friends a guy ever had!


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