High up on a bookcase in Dr. Philip Thomas’s office at Paine College is a row of binders with one at one end marked “1977” and others that go on up from there. After 41 years at Paine, the founder of its sociology program is retiring but he is planning for a legacy to leave behind.
Thomas will retire as a professor of sociology and likely be named faculty emeritus in coming months, said Helene Carter, assistant vice president for institutional advancement at Paine. He will also rotate off Paine’s board of trustees, where he served on the search committee that brought in new President Jerry Hardee. But he will miss the classroom and the students, Thomas said.
“I have already taught two generations,” he said. “A lot of people come and tell me, ‘Dr. Thomas, you taught my mother.’^” He jokes that he is retiring before he can teach a third generation so that no one will come up to him and say, “Dr. Thomas, you taught my grandmother.”
Part of it is to spend more time with family.
“I have grandchildren and I am trying to spend some time with them,” Thomas said. The grandchildren are in Boston and he just spent a week up there with them.
“If I am teaching I won’t be able to do that,” he said.
He came to Paine before he finished his doctorate at Emory University when he needed to get a teaching job. He applied to every college in Georgia, and Paine was the first to respond. When he got there in 1976, he liked the beautiful small campus and was impressed by his faculty colleagues.
They were “people who got their degrees from Yale University and Cornell University and Syracuse University, they were committed people,” Thomas said. “They were my role models so when I got to be friends with them, that made me stay here.”
He also liked the man who hired him, then-President Julius Scott.
“I worked very well with him, that’s why I stayed here,” Thomas said.
His field, sociology, is the study of human behavior but is different from similar fields, he said.
“Sociology focuses primarily on the groups, psychology focuses on the individual and the mind,” Thomas said. “Here we are looking at the influence of the environment on the person.”
That field, too, has changed over the course of his career.
“Many fields have come out of sociology,” Thomas said. “Criminology is a separate field now.”
In fact, there is a movement now in medicine to focus more on some of those same factors in looking at population health and sociology has always been well-positioned to do that, he said.
“A lot of people go into the medically-related fields from sociology,” Thomas said. “A lot of them go for a (master of public health). The University of Georgia and the University of South Carolina, they are always looking for our students from the sociology department. We are proud of that.”
Even though Paine is in the midst of a lawsuit with its accrediting body and technically on probation for not meeting certain financial standards, he sees things working out for the future.
“We hope the situation will turn around,” Thomas said. “We need a person who is able to recruit students.”
Hardee has already said that will be one of his major initiatives and Thomas sent him a note recently urging him to take a broader approach at attracting new students, including more Hispanics.
He has always been concerned about students in need and is starting an endowment at Paine to help them, particularly those with good grades who are interested in sociology. At his retirement party Sept. 23, Thomas is asking in lieu of gifts that people donate to this endowment. And he will be doing his part as well.
“Our family will match whatever they contribute,” Thomas said.
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213