TIFFIN— Aaron Thomas and the students, staff and parents of the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) school district have something in common; they are familiar with trying to make sense out of senseless tragedies.
For CCA, it’s coping with the deaths of three students in three years, the most recent in October when Mackenzie Lown was killed near the high school in an accident that injured several others.
For Thomas, it’s the sight of his hometown, Parkersburg, leveled by a massive tornado (eight people died due to the storm); and the murder of his father, legendary Iowa high school football coach Ed Thomas.
“Hopefully, you can find a couple of things to take from me that will help you in your life,” Thomas said in his opening remarks to middle and high school students on Thursday, Nov. 10.
Thomas showed a documentary on the 2008 tornado that devastated much of Parkersburg, its rebuilding, the 2009 shooting of his father and how the Thomas family responded by reaching out to Mark Becker’s (Thomas’ murderer) family with compassion.
“Hopefully what you see in Parkersburg is not a whole lot different from CCA. We’re a smaller district, but what happened there, our students are no different than you guys.”
Thomas spoke briefly about his upbringing, including what he called “29 of the easiest years someone could have growing up.” Being Ed Thomas’ son shaped him early.
“I knew I wanted to be passionate about whatever I did when I grew up. As I got older, I knew I wanted to be just like my Dad.”
From high school, Thomas played basketball at Drake and, after graduation, found himself coaching and then serving as the Athletic Director at Union High School in LaPorte City. Along the way he and had three sons. “Things were going about as good for me as they could go,” he said.
Changes were coming, however, starting with the May 25, 2008 tornado, an EF5- rated monster that destroyed the southern half of Parkersburg, including his parents’ house. In the aftermath, the senior Thomas rallied the town.
“The one thing we learned in a hurry, it doesn’t matter how nice a house you have, how cool a cell phone you have, if you’re wearing Nike’s or whatever. That can all be lying in a pile or blown to Wisconsin in 15 seconds. What truly mattered was the type of people we had, the type of people you are,” said Thomas. He now believes material things don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but it’s the character of the people that counts. “If people respect you, they’re going to come and help you,” he said.
The high school in Parkersburg was destroyed, necessitating building a new structure for the Aplington-Parkersburg district. Thomas said it was very similar to the CCA high school, built in 2009. He complimented them on the school and added, “I hope you understand how lucky you are to go to school here, to have these facilities.”
Thomas urged the high school students to respect, care for, and have pride in their school so that it will be as good when middle students move upward.
“This is hopefully something you view as a privilege,” he said.
A quick survey of students showed very few plan on living their whole lives in the CCA district, and roughly half plan to live in Iowa. Thomas told them to never forget where they came from.
“You’re always going to be a part of CCA. I hope that wherever you end up, that you take Clear Creek with you,” he said.
Thomas spoke of the small town Iowa work ethic, and how the world needs people from that background to teach and pass it on, “to teach them, yes, I’m going to help you even though I know I’m not going to get anything out of the deal, because that’s the right thing to do.” He said people on the coasts, “don’t understand this.”
“It’s you students that step up and lead and are there for one another, because that’s truly what gets you through the toughest times.”
June 24, 2009 changed Thomas’ life even more when Thomas Becker, a former student and football player at Aplington-Parkersburg, walked into the school’s makeshift locker room and weight room, and shot Ed Thomas seven times. Becker fled as Thomas lay dying in front of his players. Later the same day, the Thomas family made the decision to face the multitude of media in a press conference. Thomas said they could have had someone read a statement for them but, “I had watched my Dad for 13 months deal with adversity. He did every single interview. He got emotional. He still did them.”
“Even in those toughest of moments, we needed to give that statement,” he said.
Thomas told the students they will all deal with adversity at some point in their lives. “Adversity, unfortunately, is not a one-time deal. I’m not done with hard things in my life. You’re not done with hard things in your life. Unfortunately, you know that as well as I do. You’ve been hit by that.” He urged the crowd to think of the situation of others as they move forward from their own tragedies. The power and ability for individuals to decide their attitudes each day is also vital. He asked them if they came to school excited to be there and ready to learn, or to be a pain to the teachers and take away from their fellow students.
Thomas also addressed the role of leadership and the importance of setting the right tone for the younger students. “High schoolers, I don’t think you understand the impact you have in your community on young people.” Thomas said the high school athletes are on par with the college and pro players, in the eyes of the young kids. Thomas reminded them, “Young eyes are constantly watching you. How you lead and the example you set is what will be found in your community.”
Thomas’ appearance was facilitated by Brian Koster with the Grinnell State Bank in Marengo as part of a three-school tour including Williamsburg and Iowa Valley. The bank also sponsored the appearance. The majority of Thomas’ fee goes to the Ed Thomas Family Foundation, which provides scholarships and opportunities for young adults.
In the wake of tragedy, Thomas said, it is how a person responds that will dictate how he or she will move forward.
Thomas urged these students to move forward with conviction.
“Whatever you do, do it with passion,” he said. “Be tough, do that right thing, be difference makers and see what kind of impact you can make in your life.”