Benj Thomas, a longtime member of the Society of Friends, died on November 14, 2017, at his home in Ukiah, California. Benj was an inspiring teacher at Sidwell Friends Middle School, a founding teacher at Thornton Friends Middle School, and an enthusiastic volunteer cook at Catoctin Quaker Camp. In California, he brought his experience in Friends education and camping to service on the board of Woolman/Sierra Friends Center, where a colleague described the essence of his legacy as “where solid pedagogy met heart.”
Born Benjamin Harrison Thomas in Boston on March 15, 1941, Benj is the father of Sam, Stephen and Matthew Thomas; step-father of Laurie and Becky Gaines and Jubran and Usama Kanaan; grandfather of Aidan, Cecilia, Spencer, and Oliver Thomas; and step-grandfather to Nayla and Mina Kanaan. He was surrounded by family and friends in his last months, with a high point being a July 2017 Thomas family reunion in his beloved Castine, Maine, where he spent summers in his youth and later with his own children.
His final weeks brought an outpouring of remembrances, many from former students. “His life continues in the lives of his students and the lives they influence in turn,” one wrote. “I met him at a high school filled with troubled kids. He had complete confidence in all of us, which gradually taught us to own that confidence ourselves. In the Quaker tradition, he saw the Light in everyone and waited with perfect patience (sometimes decades!) for us to let it shine.”
Another former student recalled the unforgettable scene of Benj standing on a classroom table to dramatize a key lesson. She said she took his cue and surprised her own children by standing on the dining room table the day the Affordable Care Act passed.
Benj moved to Washington, DC, in the 1970s after serving in the first contingent of Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia. For the rest of his life, he retained his fondness for speaking Amharic to any Ethiopian person he encountered, and for eating Ethiopian food.
Teaching at Sidwell drew him to attend and later join Bethesda Friends Meeting, where he frequently brought messages about tolerance and simple living. He served as clerk of Meeting in the 1980s, an experience he called one of the most important of his life. It was at Bethesda Meeting that he met Susan Baird Kanaan, and where they married in 1997.
In 2002, Benj and Susan moved to Northern California to be near her family. There Benj embarked on new forms of community service. He continued his involvement with local Quakers, joining others in helping the Ukiah Friends group to become a Worship Group under the care of Redwood Forest Friends Memorial minute for Benj Thomas, 2.26.18 2 Meeting in Santa Rosa, CA, where he and Susan transferred their memberships in 2013.
In the wider community, among other activities he was a leader of efforts to protect and expand the public library, served on the board of Mendocino County Public Broadcasting, mentored a young student from middle school into college, and taught poetry in several classrooms. A collection of poetry by Ukiah Poets Laureate, published soon after his death and dedicated to him, described him as “a man of honor, humor, and wisdom.” Benj brought these same qualities to two years of service on the county civil Grand Jury and eight years on the Ukiah City Council, including one as mayor. A fellow Ukiah Quaker observed that over his life, “How he experienced the Light in some way enabled him to reach out to larger and larger circles.”
Sharing music from his legendary CD collection was always a joy for him, carried out through jazz shows on community radio in Ukiah and the hundreds of mix tapes and CDs that he made for loved ones over many decades.
At an overflowing memorial gathering in Ukiah in January 2018, Benj was celebrated for his ability to bring people together, his commitment to nurturing and serving his community, and the way he modeled civility in public discourse. “He made me feel seen,” one friend said. Others noted that he built community one person at a time, through simple kindness. Benj was also remembered for his wit and for being what one friend called “wickedly funny.”
A Bethesda Friend recalled meeting Benj at an all-day community-building event when she was new to the Society of Friends. “Benj had this amazing quality of being present and deeply interested, but letting you open up at your own pace. I suspect that is what endeared him to so many students – knowing he was there and cared, feeling the freedom to bring forth whatever you wanted, feeling he would delight in whatever unfolded in the relationship.”
Another Friend described Benj as “that rare being, all man with no need to have power over anyone else. He was calming, reassuring and potent, perhaps the result of years of scrutiny by those most critical of eyes, those of adolescents. He was (most days, anyway) morally, spiritually, emotionally and intellectually mature. And, in his final months, he was a role model for how to die with grace and dignity.”
Soon after his death, a former student summed up his lasting impact: “Your light continues to shine in our lives.”