Dr. Carolyn Thomas

Photo courtesy of Ferrum College

Dr. Carolyn Thomas


Ferrum College professor and Smith Mountain Lake advocate Carolyn Thomas died Jan. 14 at age 71.

Thomas, a professor of environmental studies and biology, was one of the original scientists who founded the Smith Mountain Lake Association’s water quality monitoring program in 1986. The program conducts weekly water testing at multiple locations around the lake throughout the summer and gives a snapshot of the lake’s health from week to week and year to year.

“She was our compass,” said Michael McCord, director of the water quality monitoring program. “She kept us pointed in the right direction.”

Thomas was constantly involved in the program throughout its 34 years, McCord said. She worked closely with Ferrum College students analyzing the water samples, as well as volunteers who took the samples. “This was her baby,” McCord said.

While she had not been as involved in recent years due to illness, McCord said she was diligent in training staff to do her job. Because of that, he doesn’t expect the program to slow down this coming season.

The Ferrum College community is also in mourning following Thomas’s death.

“We are heartbroken over the death of Carolyn Thomas, who was for so many of us a model of fierce intellect, creative imagination and personal courage,” said Ferrum College President David L. Johns in a statement on the college’s website. “She had a way of exciting curiosity in her students and of inviting us all to be better people. Her fingerprints are on all of our lives -– thousands of us -– and we will miss her dearly.”

Delia Heck, Ferrum College associate professor of Environmental Science and Natural Science division chair and a good friend of Thomas, said she remained as passionate about water quality and environmental science in retirement as she did when she began teaching 41 years ago. She added she was most happy in the lab or in the field, especially on the water and helping students discover and learn about Earth.

“Her spirit and enthusiasm inspired generations of students to pursue both careers and lifelong personal commitments to protecting and sustaining the world in which we live,” Heck said. “She was committed to helping students develop the skills and techniques necessary to measure, monitor and analyze environmental data in order to make sound, rationale, scientifically-based policy decisions to serve society’s greatest good. It was an honor and a privilege to work with her, be mentored and taught by her, and to serve by her side in her pursuit of truth, knowledge and inspiration.”

Thomas is survived by her husband, Bob Pohlad, a retired Ferrum professor of biology and horticulture, and their sons, Chris and Tim.

Burial service and celebration of life for Thomas will be held Jan. 26 at 2 p.m. in Ferrum College’s Vaughn Chapel. A reception will follow in the Blue Ridge Mountain Room in upper Franklin Hall on campus.

In lieu of flowers, the Thomas and Pohlad family requests that individuals make a gift to the Carolyn Thomas Memorial Fund at Ferrum College. Donations will support the college’s Division of Natural Sciences.

Editor Briana Barker contributed to this article.

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