Jane, Preston and Carter Thomas had to write new chapters in their lives differently than what they had imagined when a 2004 accident took the life of their husband and father. The three have found great meaning in honoring the late W.P. "Bill" Thomas' commitment to helping others by establishing scholarships at the University of Mississippi.
The continued growth of the Bill Thomas Scholarship Endowment — and creation of Ole Miss First and Ole Miss Women's Council (OMWC) scholarships — reflects the value Jane Thomas Rogers of Oxford, Miss., places on philanthropy. Her latest planned gift directed to the Thomas Scholarship brings the endowment to more than $1.2 million, assuring that countless students will receive needed assistance and that the businessman, leader, conservationist and farmer will be honored in perpetuity.
"When the world we knew burst like a bubble, I had to figure out so many things," said Jane, who is an Ole Miss graduate, just like her children and late husband. "Bill was very philanthropic, and he had an aunt and uncle, Bob and Steele Thomas Hardeman, who also set inspiring philanthropic examples. It is true that when you help someone else, you receive more than you give. Providing scholarship assistance is so rewarding; you don't know how many young people need that little bit of help to see them through."
Preston Thomas of Oxford, a 2005 business graduate and vice president of industrial services for Colliers International in Memphis, considers the scholarship fund a natural way to expand his father's legacy and also recognizes the importance of all gifts.
"Ever since my father's passing, I have had and continue to have people who come up to me and tell me stories of how my dad helped them – none of which I knew. Some individuals were provided help financially, but majority were from the gift of time, conversations and mentoring. As a young professional, I have learned that some of the most important things in life include giving your time and helping others in financial need. You never know what either means to people or what struggles people are going through each day."
Carter Thomas, a 2008 family and consumer science major and current communicative disorders graduate student, agreed. "My father was a hard worker in his office, in the field and in the lives of others. I did not realize just how big of an impact my father had until the day of his funeral. What I learned is my father was a man who gave back to his community and the world around him, helped all those he could and never expected anything in return. My father did not boast of his good works; it was just a part of who he was."
"My grandfather (James Talbert "Tol" Thomas III) also was a giving man. The importance of giving back to a community or to an organization that 'meant something," I believe, led my father and now all of us, to continue to find those areas of passion and to support what you believe in, if possible. For my father, that was education, community organizations, family and friends, and eventually — where it all began — Ole Miss."
Jane's life mirrors those thoughts from her children, as she has moved from the family's Egypt Plantation in Greenwood, Miss., to Oxford and is making great investments of time to help with Ole Miss initiatives. She has served on the University of Mississippi Foundation board and is a member of the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts board and the OMWC, which provides scholarships, mentoring and leadership training to students.
"It has been such a blessing to be exposed to this world of Ole Miss — to see up close the many alumni and friends who give of their time to help this university and our students. It has also been very enlightening to see the big picture and vision — what the faculty, staff, administration, alumni and others do to make great events happen and bring opportunities to our students. I've met so many interesting and accomplished people who give back, and there's the recognition that people have different gifts to contribute. Small gifts are just as important as large ones; I think we lose sight of that. All our gifts add together for the whole," she said.
Vice Chancellor Emerita for University Relations Gloria Kellum and other Ole Miss and foundation staff members helped guide Jane in setting up scholarship endowments.
"Jane has faced both trials and triumphs with love, grace and humility," Kellum said. "At a crossroads in her life, she found a new purpose through Ole Miss. The university brings people together in the lifelong bonds of friendship and shared values, one of which is helping young people build outstanding educational foundations. We are all here on this earth to help one another. Of course there is no greater tribute to Jane than to see her children reaching out to help others."
Carter is very aware of the impact the university has had on her mother.
"My mother has really found a life back in Oxford. She has been able to take in the sweetness and support of the Ole Miss family and community. When things were so sad for her, Ole Miss gave her the motivation to continue to go on and fulfill purpose in her life. She continues to amaze me every day with the wonderful opportunities she gives young people of a great education and other support.
"What an ode to my father and to his and my mother's relationship that we are now able to keep his legacy alive through the areas of life he was so passionate about. If I can fulfill the values and morals my daddy instilled in me through helping others, it keeps me connected to the man he was and will continue to be in the lives of so many," the daughter said.
Preston is married to another Ole Miss graduate, Carlyle Graves Thomas, and they have a son, "Bill" Thomas III. Preston said he hopes recipients of the Thomas Scholarship — a general academic award with Coahoma, Leflore, Quitman, Holmes, Sunflower or Tallahatchie County students eligible — will emulate aspects of his father's life. "He was loved by many because he sincerely cared about others and wanted them to succeed in life. Sometimes caring for others means more than any amount of money that you can have or give."
Jane and her husband, Ole Miss alumnus and attorney Fred Rogers, provide support to Ole Miss Athletics and are members of the Vaught Society. Jane also funded an OMWC Scholarship in memory of Lillian Graham Carson, an Ole Miss student and family friend, and funded Ole Miss First Scholarships in honor of her children. She had her son and daughter come to the foundation and set criteria to make the scholarships more meaningful to them and pass on the importance of philanthropy.
The A. Carter Thomas Scholarship is awarded to a freshman who exhibits strong school involvement, school spirit and community service. The W. Preston Thomas Jr. scholarship is designated for a student who grew up in or near Greenwood.
"People ask me all the time 'where I am from.' I always say I live in Oxford, Mississippi, but am from the Mississippi Delta and a town called Greenwood. Most people I meet know little about Greenwood, but it is one of my favorite places on earth. I have so many good memories of friends and family who live there. Being able to help individuals from this area means so much to me," said Preston.
Wendell Weakley, president and CEO of the UM Foundation, said the family serves as a powerful example for other alumni and friends.
"It has been a great pleasure for me to work with Jane, Carter and Preston to establish endowments that mean so much to them and to our students. Bill's positive impact on each of them remains evident as they perpetuate his memory," he said.
Jane's planned gift gives her membership in the 1848 Society, which was established in 1998, the university's 150th year. The society recognizes alumni and friends who have either funded or planned a deferred gift, such as a bequest or life income plan. For more information on gift planning, contact Sandra Guest, vice president of the foundation, at email@example.com or 662-915-5208.