In Memoriam: Robert N. Thomas
Robert N. Thomas was born on July 17, 1926, in Pittsburgh. He studied first at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and earned a bachelor’s degree in geography and social science education in 1950. Following this he taught high school geography and science in Oakmont, PA, his former high school, and in the Hampton Township schools.
While teaching, he continued his own education, earning a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1958. In 1960 he returned to Indiana University of Pennsylvania as a professor of geography and taught there until 1969. During this period he also undertook a PhD in geography at Pennsylvania State University and served as an urban planning advisor for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Guatemala (1965 and 1966), as well as supporting a young family.
One of his sons, Scott, reminiscing about his childhood, noted how his father encouraged travel and the discovery of new places; the family took every opportunity to take a trip somewhere. “When summer vacation time came around the corner, I think we sometimes just flipped a coin to decide North, South, East or West. By the time I was out of high school we had driven through every state in the Continental United States except for one.”
Not only that but “when my father was working on collecting data for his doctoral thesis we even drove all the way to Guatemala. Not once, but twice! And when more research was needed, we drove even further to spend a summer in Honduras.”
Scott also remembered lots of gatherings at their family house in Indiana of students from different nationalities from Japan to South America.
Having been awarded his doctorate in 1968, Thomas moved to Michigan State University (MSU) in 1969 to join the geography faculty, where he stayed until his retirement.
Thomas’ research interests were in the geography of Latin America, particularly population, migration and tourism. He traveled extensively throughout the Central American countries, Mexico, the Caribbean islands, and South America. In 1972 he was a Fulbright Scholar to Colombia.
He became the assistant director of MSU’s Latin American Studies Center in 1974 and its director in 1985. He authored and co-authored dozens of research articles published in academic journals and edited three books including Population growth and urbanization in Latin America: the rural-urban interface with John Hunter and Scott Whiteford (published 1981).
Thomas was a dedicated lecturer who greatly enjoyed teaching undergraduate courses, not only on the geography of Latin America, but also on the geography of North America and population geography. His classrooms were always full and students had only favorable comments about his courses.
Beyond the classroom, he took both undergraduate and graduate students on field experiences in Cuba, Mexico and across Latin America, exposing them to different cultures and environments.
He was a founding member of the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers. He was also a member of the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education, American Geographical Society, National Geographic Society, and the Geography Commission of the Pan American Institute of Geography and History (PAIGH).
Thomas retired in 1990 but, as emeritus professor, continued to be active in research, writing, teaching and participating in departmental activities. Through MSU’s Office of Study Abroad he continued to direct and accompany students on international field experiences. He also worked on several monographs concerning his travels and experiences in Latin America. In 1999, Thomas and his wife established a Geography Endowment Fund at MSU to support geography-related student activities.
He also maintained a strong alliance with Indiana University of Pennsylvania over five decades, acting as a mentor to geography graduates and contributing to the Geography and Planning Faculty Scholarship Fund.
Beyond the two universities, he lectured on cruises to Latin America and also engaged in community service as a speaker for Rotary clubs and in public schools.
Thomas was named an honorary affiliate of the Pan American Institute of Geography and History in 2005. Indiana University of Pennsylvania honored him as a distinguished alumnus in 2007 for his achievements in academia, his contributions as an educator, his service as a mentor, and his authoritative knowledge of population geography and tourism in Latin America.
Despite declining visual ability, Thomas maintained his office at MSU, visiting the geography building almost every day, including the day he passed away. He inspired generations of students with a fascination for Latin America and was a major influence in the careers of many geography graduates. He will be missed tremendously by both colleagues and students.
Bob is survived by his wife Dorothy of 60 years, their two sons, Scott and Robert, his wife Cari, and their two sons Colin and Connor.