WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Harold Thomas Jr., principal of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy in Washington, walks the halls of his school, he is walking in the footsteps of his father. Literally.
His father — Harold Thomas Sr. — was principal of the same school nearly 20 years ago.
“I am carrying on his legacy, and the beautiful part is I feel his presence,” the junior Thomas said of his father. “Sometimes I still find myself wanting to pick up the phone and tell him what is happening and seek his advice.”
The elder Thomas died in December, two months shy of his 82nd birthday.
A lawyer who previously served in the U.S. Army, the elder Thomas had varied careers. He served as a government official on the federal and local levels. In the District of Columbia, he was director of finance and revenue for the city and was a member of the Cabinet of former Mayor Marion Barry.
He also was the executive secretary to the District of Columbia Board of Education and later served as arbitrator to the District’s court system.
Education was always important to the elder Thomas. He worked as a special education teacher in District public schools while obtaining his law degree from Howard University’s School of Law.
After retiring from public service, he joined the Archdiocese of Washington, assisting in the development of written procedures for the implementation of special education legal policies.
He then served for several years as principal of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy and for a short time was executive director of the Center City School Consortium, now known as the Consortium of Catholic Academies.
When the younger Thomas was named principal of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy, the elder Thomas returned to the school to volunteer.
“He was a breakout teacher for me here,” Thomas said of his father’s volunteer efforts. “He did tutoring, worked in small groups, everything. He was committed to this work.”
After he ceased volunteering, the elder Thomas would return to the school because “my father was very into music and the arts. He loved to come and sit in the music classes and attend (school) shows,” Thomas told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.
The junior Thomas said that as principal of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy, he benefits from the groundwork established by his father.
“He (the elder Thomas) established a lot of order. He set up policies and procedures and a code of conduct for our students that we still follow,” Thomas said. “He brought a professional atmosphere that totally changed the school climate. He brought structure and professionalism here, and I am really proud of that. He even helped develop the school logo.”
Like his father, the younger Thomas did not originally start out to be an educator.
“I did not go to school for this initially — I thought I wanted to be an attorney,” he said. “But, I had the opportunity to teach, and I found I liked it.”
He said a career in education “was just a natural fit” for him, and his decision to become an educator was influenced not just by his father, but also his mother, Ann. She was an educator in the District’s public schools for 40 years, and served as a principal in several schools. The Thomases were married for 53 years when the senior Thomas died.
In addition, the younger Thomas has a sister — Staci McDuffie — who is assistant principal at a District public school and instructional coach for that school system.
The younger Thomas served as principal of St. Francis Xavier Academy from 2006 to 2010. He then left for three years to serve as a principal of a District public school, returning to St. Francis Xavier in 2013.
“We have been (educators) in both public and private schools, and we love Catholic schools — my dad loved Catholic schools,” Thomas said. “It is a ministry of love and commitment, and you really have to love what you are doing.”
The younger Thomas not only works in the same school his father did, but with some of the same staffers who were there during his father’s tenure.
“My father was very professional and thorough. He loved to work in the schools, and he demanded the most out of people, but he did it in a loving way,” Thomas said. “I think I have the greatest staff in Washington, D.C. Make sure you print that!”
Szczepanowski is managing editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.