Thomas—Benjamin Harrison Thomas, 76, on November 14, 2017, at home in Ukiah, Calif. Benj was born on March 15, 1941, in Boston, Mass. He moved to Washington, D.C., in the 1970s after serving in Ethiopia in the first contingent of Peace Corps volunteers. He was an inspiring teacher at Sidwell Friends Middle School. His time there drew him to attend and later join Bethesda (Md.) Meeting, where he frequently brought messages about tolerance and simple living. He said that his service as clerk of meeting in the 1980s was one of the most important of his life. He was also 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 bear on the board of Woolman at Sierra Friends Center.
At Bethesda Meeting he met and married Susan Baird Kanaan in 1997. In 2002, he and Susan moved to Northern California, where he led efforts to protect and expand the public library, served on the Mendocino County Public Broadcasting board, mentored a young student, and taught poetry. Sharing music from his legendary compact disk collection on community radio jazz shows was always a joy for him. He also served on the county Civil Grand Jury for two years and on the Ukiah City Council for eight years, including a year as mayor. He joined others in helping Ukiah Friends become a worship group under the care of Redwood Forest Meeting in Santa Rosa, Calif., where he and Susan transferred their memberships in 2013. A fellow Ukiah Quaker observed that “how he experienced the Light in some way enabled him to reach out to larger and larger circles.”
Family and friends surrounded him in his last months, and his final weeks brought an outpouring of remembrances 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.”
An overflowing memorial gathering in Ukiah celebrated his ability to bring people together, his commitment to nurturing community, the way he modeled civility in public discourse, and his wit. A Bethesda Friend recalled his quality of being present and interested but letting others open up at their own pace, delighting in whatever unfolded in the relationship. Another Friend described him in his final days as a role model for how to die with grace and dignity.
Benj was the husband of Susan Baird Kanaan; father of Sam Thomas, Stephen Thomas, and Matthew Thomas; and stepfather of Laurie Gaines, Becky Gaines, Jubran Kanaan, and Usama Kanaan. He also leaves behind four grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.