Yesterday the Quaker Lake Camp community was rocked by the news that Leah Way, daughter of Martha Thomas Way and granddaughter of Neal & Susie Thomas, had been killed in a car crash. I heard from numerous old friends (thanks Leigh Anne, Steve, Edith, Susan and others) who wanted to make sure that we got the news way down here in Florida, and we were all devastated. During my years of involvement at QLC, Neal was my camp director, my boss and my friend. In October of 2009 I wrote of his influence on my life in one of my earliest posts. It seemed appropriate to share it again today. Everyone who is part of the Quaker Lake community- and even now, 30 years since I last worked on summer staff, it is still a community I cherish- mourns with the Thomas family. Our prayers are with them, as is our love.
|Neal- always the leader of the band!|
I grew to know Neal over the next few years as I progressed from camper, to Counselor-in-Training to summer staff- on which I served from 1978-1983. 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 the NC Yearly Meeting of Friends 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 often 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 in life 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 Camp to me. The influence he had on my life cannot be explained in a blog post. 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 legendarily weak gag reflex...but not quite! Today, more than usual, the Thomas family is in my thoughts and prayers. I love you guys.
Because of Jesus,