By Rick Davis, Director of Communications, Creighton University
Charles Thomas Jr. and his best friend, Akil Goodman, two promising high school athletes, sat in a restaurant in their hometown of Flint, Mich., discussing a future beyond the violence of the inner city, when a man approached their table.
“Hey, I heard you guys talking,” said the man, whom they didn’t know.
“It’s all good to think that you’re going to do all these things in life. But one of you will be dead by the time you’re 25 and the other will be in jail by the time you’re 35.”
“We just kind of looked at him and said, ‘Whatever, man,’” recalls Thomas, who was 17 at the time. “And he walked off, and that was it.”
The man’s words would be somewhat prophetic.
Goodman would be shot and killed outside a Flint nightclub in 2006, at the age of 24.
Thomas would go on to earn two degrees from Creighton University, as well as degrees from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Texas-San Antonio.
He has never been incarcerated, but in a twist on the stranger’s words, Thomas spent time in jail before his 35th birthday – as a volunteer life-skills teacher with Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources (OAR) of Fairfax County, Inc. The nonprofit restorative justice/human services organization in Fairfax, VA works with inmates so that they can rebuild their lives once they are released. This summer, Thomas was named chairman of the board of OAR.
“At the time, Akil and I were walking down very similar roads,” Thomas said. “I went right; he went left. His journey took him to the graveyard, and my journey has taken me here.”
Thomas had earned an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and was beginning graduate school when his friend was killed. The news hit him hard. He would turn to alcohol for relief. Everyday life was a struggle.
But there were those dreams. The dreams that Goodman and Thomas had shared at the restaurant that night. He couldn’t let his friend down.
He returned to school – earning a MBA from UT-San Antonio in 2007; a master’s degree in negotiation and dispute resolution from Creighton in 2009; and, in 2014, an Ed.D. in leadership from Creighton.
He excelled in the classroom. In 2013, he was inducted into Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit honor society, during a ceremony on Creighton’s campus. And, this year, he was named one of 100 recipients of Alpha Sigma Nu’s Magis Medal – which honors outstanding members in celebration of its centennial anniversary.
“Dr. Thomas is an extraordinary young reflective leader who has a gift for inspiring and transforming the people he meets,” said Isabelle Cherney, Ph.D., director of Creighton’s Interdisciplinary Ed.D. Program in Leadership.
Thomas is also active in the community. In addition to his work with OAR, he’s involved with the Future Fund, a local philanthropic organization, and serves as treasurer of the board for Leadership Fairfax, a community-based leadership development organization.
The Fairfax Chamber of Commerce honored Thomas as the 2015 Emerging Influential Leader of the Year in Northern Virginia; The Network Journal, a quarterly publication for black professionals and business leaders, named him a national 40-under-40 honoree; and he was the keynote speaker at this year’s Ed.D. new-student orientation event at Creighton. “He captivated and touched every individual in the audience,” Cherney said of the talk.
“The awards are cool,” Thomas said, but he finds the real rewards are in serving others. He said he’s developed a connection with the students at the county jail in Northern Virginia.
“They say, ‘You know what Dr. C? You’re just like us – minus the green jumpsuit,” he said with a laugh.
Thomas played basketball at Powers Catholic High School in Flint and was a walk-on at Notre Dame, eventually earning a scholarship. He wears a three-piece suit, with a bow tie, when he first meets with students at the jail, “just to establish credibility.” But, by the third class, it’s basketball shorts and T-shirts, exposing his tattoos.
“I’ve never been in jail, but I understand their journey,” Thomas said. “I know what the streets are like, but I wasn’t consumed by the streets. I’ve never claimed to be a thug, by any means. I’ve never sold drugs, but I have an appreciation for what that world is like because I grew up there.”
The OAR program that Thomas teaches focuses on life skills – with classes on communication, financial literacy, decision-making and mental health. But Thomas, who’s been involved with the program since 2013 and turned 35 in May, isn’t afraid to expand the curriculum.
“We talk about things from Aristotle and Plato to negotiation and conflict management to what happened in Ferguson, Mo. (with the racial unrest),” said Thomas.
“I am not judgmental. I very much see parts of myself in them and see parts of them in me. But I see the better version. Even though they are incarcerated, I see what could be.”
Thomas works full time as a project leader at LMI, a government consulting firm headquartered in Tysons, VA. In 2012, he published a memoir on his life, titled Scars, Exile and Vindication: My Life as an Experiment. He visited some ten states on a book-signing tour, but the best part, he says, was that it brought him closer to his dad, who was recently diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
“We had like a three-and-a-half-hour talk,” after the book came out, Thomas said. “My dad told me he loved me and was proud of me that day. I had never heard him say that before.”
One of Thomas’ favorite quotes is from Maya Angelou: “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” He also finds inspiration and motivation in the directive from St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, to “Go forth and set the world on fire.”
Thomas said, “With whatever time we have on this planet, I think we’re obligated to give and to be the best that we can be.”