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From valley to peak

Fort Lewis President Dene Thomas doubled her effort to reach the top

By David Pickle

NCAA.org

It’s a familiar story.

Girl meets boy. Girl marries at 18, has a family and then divorces. Girl is without a college education and supporting three children. Girl becomes a college president.

Maybe it’s not so familiar after all. But whatever the circumstances, Fort Lewis College President Dene Thomas is proof that it’s never too late to catch a dream.

Thomas, a “flatlander from Minnesota,” was born and raised near tiny Pipestone, a community noted for a rock formation that provides the material for the bowls of Native American peace pipes. She built an affinity for Native Americans that was strong enough to shape her career years later.

When Thomas divorced at age 30, she had no full-time employment and three girls (ages 11, 10 and 4 at the time). She enrolled at Southwest Minnesota State in Marshall and seemingly stacked the odds against her career a little further by majoring in English. Several subsequent developments broke to her advantage, but Thomas said her journey was much more practical than it may have appeared at the outset.

“I think if you do what you love and you put everything you have into it but keep in mind the practical element, the two do not really have to be in conflict,” said Thomas, now a member of the Division II Presidents Council. “If someone loves to write and they want to be an English major and they don’t want to teach, that’s fine. Take business writing, take tech writing, take some practical writing courses.”

Thomas did as she said. Though she possessed a passion for English, she emphasized rhetoric and composition to be practical. If she couldn’t continue toward her postgraduate degrees and her ultimate goal of becoming an English professor, then she could teach high school English instead.

The four years at Southwest Minnesota State were exceptionally difficult. Thomas got by on “student loans that you wouldn’t believe,” child support, piano lessons, serving as church organist, and playing the organ at weddings and funerals. When she collected her Bachelor of Arts degree at age 34, she experienced an emotional cacophony.“It was wonderful,” she said. “I was very pleased with myself. But I also felt a relief. The risk of those undergraduate years was huge because I felt responsible for my three children. It was fearful.”

She did continue with her education, earning her Ph.D. at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, where she met her future husband, Gordon. The feeling of risk returned as the girls were displaced from their rural roots and into Minneapolis. One even suffered hives from the stress. But Thomas stuck with the plan, helped greatly by an administrative fellowship. “I was working 95 percent of the time, but I had great health benefits for me and the kids. All I had to do is give up sleep.”

After she married, Thomas earned a big break when she and Gordon joined the English faculty at the University of Idaho at the same time. By then, it was time to pay the bills.

“I was a dean (many years later) and I was still paying back student loans,” she said. “I wrote those checks every month with a smile on my face because my life was changed so much because of those student loans.”

Thomas quickly found herself on an administrative path, mostly because of her zeal for problem solving. Up the ladder she went, from faculty member to administration to a deanship and then to the presidency of Lewis-Clark State College, an NAIA school where the athletics director had resigned just before her arrival, leaving a large financial deficit in his wake.

Thomas turned to Gary Hunter, whom she knew as AD at Idaho. In a consulting role, Hunter helped a couple of days a week, built a recovery plan and assisted in the hiring of a new athletics director. However, the new AD left after only four months, after which Thomas didn’t hire a replacement. She doggedly stuck to Hunter’s plan, handled the AD role herself (“I delegated tons of stuff,” she said) and got the program back on track. Four and a half years later, with the program by then holding a prominent place within the NAIA, Thomas finally hired an AD.

Thomas said she would have been happy remaining at Lewis-Clark State, but a headhunter alerted her to the Fort Lewis College position. The school not only shared Lewis-Clark’s commitment to liberal arts education, it offered even more opportunities for Native Americans.

Not only has Fort Lewis College made good on those promises, it also provided her the chance to hire Hunter when the AD position came open. “Gary was sort of thinking he was retired, the silly man,” she said.

Put it all together, and it’s been quite a ride for Thomas. The lifetime experience has involved family, friends, hard work and – perhaps most of all – access to education. She still speaks fondly of Southwest Minnesota State and Lewis-Clark State and is an unapologetic cheerleader for Fort Lewis and other higher education institutions that fill the Division II niche, both educationally and athletically.

“I can do it because I utterly believe in it,” she said. “I believe we are an incredible value, and I will tell that story over and over and over.”

Telling the story from personal experience makes it all the better.

Dene Kay Thomas Bio

Position: President, Fort Lewis College.
Education: Graduated from Southwest Minnesota State University; Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
Previous Positions: President, Lewis-Clark State College; vice provost, University of Idaho.
Athletics Committee Service: Division II Presidents Council, 2012-present; president of the NAIA Council of Presidents and Executive Council while at Lewis-Clark State.
What You Didn't Know: Part of Fort Lewis College’s appeal to Thomas is the college’s commitment to Native American education. Twenty-three percent of Fort Lewis College students are Native Americans who represent 139 tribes across the United States.