A Dukes family pays it forward

JMU News

by Martha Graham


SUMMARY: Investing in JMU's future by investing in students is almost as important to the Thomases as investing in their own children's futures. Both believe that giving back is their responsibility, and they ask others to join in.

From the Fall 2016 print issue of Madison.

For Mike (’76, ’77M) and Kathy Mueller Thomas (’78), nothing is more important than family. It is who they are. The Thomases live in Northern Virginia, surrounded by four daughters and their families, but they met and fell in love at JMU. It’s one reason Madison is so close to their hearts. As Mike says, “JMU is family.” And they’ve cared for that family ever since.

Mike, immediate past rector of the Board of Visitors who was appointed in June to a second board term, has served on the College of Business Board of Advisors and the presidential search committee, and in 2012 was awarded the Inez Graybeal Roop Distinguished Alumni Service Award. The Thomases co-chaired the CoB Centennial Campaign Committee, and Kathy is an active member of Women for Madison, a group that promotes philanthropic giving to the university.

The job of a lifetime

“Back in those days,” Mike says, reflecting on his years on campus, “there were only two coed dorms, Chandler and Shorts. I was head resident of Shorts, and we had a mid-year opening for an R.A. Kathy was one of the applicants.”

“I had to get past the huge beard, Fu Manchu mustache, hair down to here and a headband—it was the ’70s,” Kathy says of meeting Mike.

As the eldest of six children, Kathy Mueller couldn’t rely on her family to send her to college. She needed the job.

“When I graduated from high school, it didn’t even occur to me to apply for college,” she says. When her family moved to Northern Virginia, she got a job as a clerk at a variety store in Alexandria. “My father came home one day and said, ‘The CIA is hiring. Why don’t you see if you can get an interview?’”

It was a pivotal moment for Kathy.

“Back in the day, they made you take a typing test if you were female, so of course, I flunked the typing test. [The interviewer] looked at me and said, ‘I’m afraid without the ability to type quickly, the only thing I can offer you is a file clerk.’ I went home, thinking the whole way, ‘The best I’m going to be is a file clerk?’ I said, ‘I gotta go to school.’”

And Kathy did, though it was not easy.

“It took me a while to get through school,” she says. “I had to work a year before I had enough funds to go. My first year was at Virginia Tech. I had to drop out of there and work another year to get enough money to pay for a second year. Then I transferred to Madison.” She worked at McDonald’s and also worked weekends in Northern Virginia.

Her hard work was one of the things that impressed Mike, who was working on his MBA after earning a degree from the CoB.

“Kathy was someone to whom education was clearly important,” Mike remembers. “It was also obvious she needed to work to pay for what she wanted to do in college. Her interview was very much about ‘I need this job.’ I remember being struck by that in the interview.”

After working with Kathy for a semester—and Mike being the professional and the gentleman he is, Kathy says—he waited until the semester was over to ask her out. “And the rest, as they say, is history.”

Mike proposed in Cleveland Hall, where Kathy was head resident, after he had moved to the District of Columbia to begin his career. They were engaged in April and married in August.

“He was ambitious. He had a plan. He knew what he wanted to do,” Kathy says. “He landed his first job at IBM and just took off.”

Mike went on to positions at IBM, LORAL and Lockheed Martin, where he eventually became president of its Global Security Solutions Company. He retired from that position in December 2010, but missed the connection to the missions and people he had worked with for so long. So he moved to his current position as a senior partner and executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, a federal government contractor with more than 450 JMU alumni and broad offerings from management consulting to cybersecurity and systems delivery to systems engineering. He currently leads a corporate strategy effort to accelerate the growth of the firm into the future.

I could not have completed college without the people who supported me. There's no way I can pay anyone back for it, but I can pay it forward, and that's what we hope to do.

- Kathy Thomas

Although it took Kathy two extra years to finish by piecing together earned income, grants and student loans, she earned a degree in marketing with minors in economics and data processing. She accepted a job with Freddie Mac, where she quickly understood the value of her Madison education.

“JMU was cutting edge even back then. They started teaching a new kind of COBOL called Structured COBOL. When I was interviewing for jobs, Freddie Mac was starting to transition to this new language, and I knew it. [They said,] ‘Oh please, come work for us.’”

Eventually, family led Kathy to change careers. When their first daughter was born, Kathy knew where her heart was—at home with her child. It was the beginning of a life devoted to family. The couple has four daughters: Kelley Thomas Rodgers, Melissa Thomas Plastino (’07), Chrissy Thomas Crouse (’10) and Julie Thomas (’15). Two Thomas sons-in-law and two sisters are also Dukes.

(Left): Kathy Thomas (‘78) with daughter Julie (‘15) at the 2015 Women for Madison Senior Circle event.
(Left): Kathy Thomas (‘78) with daughter Julie (‘15) at the 2015 Women for Madison Senior Circle event.

In true JMU spirit, Kathy shared her devotion to family with hundreds of others, first as a childbirth educator and then as a doula, a professional who assists women during pregnancy and childbirth.

“The more I got into it, the more I was interested in childbirth education,” she says. She became certified as a Lamaze instructor, a rigorous two-year program, and later as a doula.

“I remember her teaching it in our basement,” says Mike. “She would hand me our babies, go [downstairs] and teach others how to have babies. It was always about giving back to somebody. I think that’s a quality JMU enhances in you when you come here.”

Giving back is what inspired the Thomases to make a multimillion dollar gift commitment to JMU and to establish JMU’s new Dukes Pay It Forward scholarship initiative that will make it possible for future students to go to Madison. They see their gift as just the beginning. The couple wants alumni to further the cause by creating their own Dukes Pay It Forward scholarship or by contributing to existing scholarships so that many more students can achieve their dreams of attending JMU.

Paying it forward

“In today’s economy, you really have to have an education to compete in this global, interconnected economy,” Mike says. “And opportunity isn’t fair. Some families can afford to send kids to school without any debt. Some can’t. Some can’t afford to even think about sending them to school without having the opportunity to have some funds.”

There’s a responsibility when you live in a country like ours. When you have the opportunity, you’ve got to give back.

- Mike Thomas

Investing in JMU’s future by investing in students is almost as important to the Thomases as investing in their own children’s futures.

“There’s a responsibility when you live in a country like ours,” Mike says. “You can’t always be a taker. When you have the opportunity, you’ve got to give back. … It’s not how much you give; it’s the thought of giving back something.”

Mike Thomas (‘76, ‘77M) and President Alger at a Board of Visitors meeting.
Mike Thomas (‘76, ‘77M) and President Alger at a Board of Visitors meeting.

The Thomases want Dukes Pay It Forward to become a call to action for all alumni to help future Dukes—the same way others helped Kathy.

“As we were thinking through this,” Kathy says, “we thought, ‘We can give someone money to go to school, but what’s the guarantee that they’ll turn around and pay it forward later?’”

So the Thomases have taken the initiative to encourage scholarship recipients to act on the opportunities they have after graduation to give back to Madison—so that others feel the legacy of JMU giving that has embraced them.

“What made a difference to me was the personal attention that I got as a student—professors who helped me, people who took an interest in my education,” Kathy says. “So Mike and I decided what we’re going to do. Maybe once a semester, we’re going to take that scholarship recipient out to dinner and find out how are things going. Just somebody else who cares whether or not that student succeeds.”

It is what the Thomases do for family.

To invest in Dukes Pay It Forward and help future students attend JMU, go to https://www.jmu.edu/give/scholarships.

Contributing Photographers: Holly Veenis & Mike Miriello ('09M)

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Published: Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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