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Penn State’s 15th President Joab Thomas Dies at 81

Penn State’s 15th president and Thomas Building’s namesake, Joab Thomas, has passed away at the age of 81.

Thomas, who preceded Graham Spanier as university president from 1990 to 1995, notably supervised Penn State’s entry into the Big Ten; the creation of the Office of Undergraduate Fellowships, which assists Penn State students in winning prestigious scholarships like the Fulbright; the university’s corporate partnerships with AT&T, Pepsi, and Barnes & Noble; and several campus expansions, including the groundbreaking for the Bryce Jordan Center and the authorization for Paterno Library.

Prior to his stint as Penn State president, Thomas served as the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa’s president from 1981 to 1988. There, he most notably tripled the university’s research funding, while establishing Alabama’s honors program and its Presidential Scholars program.

He was also responsible for finding a successor for legendary Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant, who retired in 1982, during his tenure as Alabama’s president. Eight years after Bryant’s retirement, Thomas was very nearly charged with replacing Joe Paterno, too, according to Tuscaloosa News:

Soon after arriving in State College, Pa., Thomas said a group of faculty members asked if he’d be willing to address the entire faculty. He agreed and even said he’d take questions.

Thomas said the first question he was asked was his plan for replacing Paterno should the Nittany Lions coach decide to retire.

“I said I was going to retire [instead],” Thomas said. “You can’t ask one man to replace both Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno.”

Thomas, born on Feb. 14, 1933 in Holt, Ala., earned his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate Degrees in Biology from Harvard University, where he studied or worked from 1955 to 1961. He then returned to his home state to begin his career in academic administration at Alabama, where he worked his way up to Vice President of Students Affairs in 1974. Thomas also served as Chancellor of North Carolina State University from 1976 to 1981 prior to returning to Alabama to serve as its president.

Current Penn State president Rodney Erickson released a statement commemorating Thomas’ life and accomplishments:

“Joab Thomas was a brilliant scholar, a visionary leader and a true gentleman. His commitment to students was legendary, and he played a critical role in building Penn State into an internationally ranked university. During Joab’s tenure as president of Penn State, he led the effort to strengthen undergraduate education; he initiated the largest building program in the University’s history; and his focus on fiscal responsibility resulted in more efficient resource allocation, as well as enhanced philanthropy and corporate partnerships. What’s more, Joab oversaw Penn State’s entry into the Big Ten athletic conference and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, the academic consortium of the conference. We were very fortunate to have Joab’s leadership, dedication and goodwill, and he will be greatly missed.”

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Bobby Chen

Writer and photographer, helping tell the many stories of the Penn State community.

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