By Robin Pierson, Special to the Independent
Calm in demeanor, clear in vision and strong in her devotion to children’s education, Peggie Thomas acts with a quiet efficiency that the limelight often misses.
But not this year.
Thanks to an overwhelming number of votes, the Laguna Beach Woman’s Club named this unsung heroine Woman of the Year for her generous and kind spirit coupled with a focused intellect that has brought a multitude of benefits to the community.
Thomas said she was “totally shocked” when she heard the news.
But to those who know her, the naming of Thomas as Woman of the Year is reason to celebrate.
“I think people like Peggie deserve more credit than we give them,” said Carol Reynolds, co-founder of the Laguna Community Concert Band and WOY in 2010. “When I heard I wanted to scream and cry. Peggie does everything quietly with dignity and it all gets done. And she always supports others. She is nice through and through.”
While Thomas and her husband, John, have no children, Thomas’ career, both as an educational researcher, and in the classroom, has made a substantial impact on countless students.
In 1999 Thomas, along with Diane Krasner and Pat Jamieson, came up with an idea for an afterschool-tutoring program, The Learning Club, TLC. It was and continues to be one of the school’s most successful programs, said Joanne Culverhouse, the high school principal who started in the district at El Morro Elementary.
By wisely matching adult mentors with recommended students – for the
entire school year – kids not only get academic help, but the carefully constructed program also often gives students a much needed adult role model.
“The kids would see their person and they would just light up, jump into their arms,” Culverhouse recalled. The mentors, she said, were “not just teaching a student to read, but giving them a sense of self worth.”
It’s Thomas’ “quiet leadership, organizational skills and attention to detail,” Culverhouse said, that makes the program work and made her, as principal, “just want to please Peggie, knock down the hurdles and clear the path for her.”
Born in Detroit, Mich., to a dentist and a stay at home mother, Thomas contracted polio when she was 10 years old, missing the massive distribution of the Salk vaccine by just two years. The crippling disease is in Thomas’ distant past, but polio left its mark, said friend Barbara Antonacci. “She used something that could have been a detriment to her and turned it a positive.”
In the late 1960s when Thomas was attending the University of Michigan, she found her passion and her soul mate. While working at the school’s Institute for Social Research, exploring how busing designed to desegregate school districts and low income housing effected students’ school performance, “I got the research bug,” Thomas said. She went on to get a master’s degree in the social psychology of education. She also met John, her first serious boyfriend. The pair will celebrate their 45th anniversary this summer.
In 1972 John’s work in real estate development catapulted the couple to southern California where Thomas landed her dream job at the Rand Corporation. As a researcher at the Santa Monica think tank, Thomas designed and directed policy research in education, social programs and energy, while earning a Ph.D. in public policy analysis.
During her 18 years at Rand, Thomas examined social concerns facing educators, such as anti-smoking campaigns aimed at teens and the financial impact of federal law requiring school districts to mainstream special needs students.
“It was the best job I could ever have hoped for,” Thomas said.
The couple lived in Pacific Palisades but John’s work too often found him driving south.
While John says he could have lived in the drafty 1920s beach cottage overlooking south Laguna’s Secret Cove, he succumbed to his wife’s nudging and eight years ago the old house was remodeled into an elegant, oceanfront contemporary.
Since moving to Laguna in 1989, Thomas’ focus has been volunteering. “I feel like I should give back to the community. I just think that’s something you should do with your life.”
As an adult literacy tutor in the Orange County Library program, Thomas said she gained an appreciation for the struggles and strategies of non-literate adults. As a board member for ARK, a nonprofit organization that provides services for foster families caring for abused children, Thomas raised thousands of dollars in grant monies.
For more than a decade, as part of the America Association of University Women’s Help-A-Child project, she volunteered in local classrooms. Thomas was part of the AAUW group that supported Tech Trek, which tries to instill enthusiasm for math and science by sending seventh- grade girls to summer science camps.
“Education is basically my love,” Thomas said.
Along with continuing to shepherd El Morro’s TLC program, Thomas has held numerous board posts in both AAUW and the Woman’s Club.
“She doesn’t do it for attention, but for intention, a bigger purpose,” said Susan McNeal Velasquez, a personal development trainer, columnist and author. “She is very high minded and she makes people comfortable. She is a high-level relationship person. Peggie is like a warm hug.”
A luncheon honoring Peggie Thomas will be held at the Woman’s Club on Friday, June 14, from 11:30-1:30. Tickets are $25 for members and $30 for non- members. Checks should be sent to the Woman’s Club, 286 St. Ann’s Drive, Laguna Beach, CA 92651 by June 10. For further information, call 949.494.8821.
Laguna resident Robin Pierson writes about local initiatives.