Obituaries

Hal Thomas of Hingham, a retired teacher with a Transcendentalist touch, dies at 94

Mr. Thomas, who taught in Weymouth for 37 years, “was all for fun, all the time,” said his wife, Mary.
Mr. Thomas, who taught in Weymouth for 37 years, “was all for fun, all the time,” said his wife, Mary.

Around the time his teenage son earned his driving permit, Hal Thomas had just finished installing a wood stove he’d custom-designed to fit the family fireplace. It was time to stock up on wood.

“Your typical family would have had wood delivered,” his son, Loren of Hingham, said in a eulogy. “We were not your typical family.”

So father and son attached a trailer to their 2-wheel-drive pickup truck and drove to New Hampshire, where the family owned eight wooded acres. After a snowy day spent felling trees and chopping and loading wood, “we rolled out of there around dusk with a 16-year-old boy behind the wheel and a good 5 inches of snow on the ground,” Loren said.

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When the old truck began slipping on a steep incline, “it was clear we were not going to make it,” he said. “Without a word or a swear, my dad hops out of the truck as if he had done this before. I felt the truck surge ahead. With wheels spinning and the engine revving, he pushed us to the top.”

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Mr. Thomas died Dec. 22 of congestive heart failure, an hour after he had settled into his room at the Pat Roche Hospice Home in his hometown of Hingham. He was 94 and had lived for nearly 60 years in a house he had converted from a chicken coop.

“This is no solemn occasion, it is a marvelous one,” Mr. Thomas told family members assembled at his bedside, a reference to a game he loved that involves keeping a straight face after a false declaration of solemnity.

“He was all for fun, all the time,” said his wife, Mary.

Loren recalled that cresting that snowy hill in the pickup truck years ago was “all in a day’s work” for Mr. Thomas, a junior high shop teacher known for his devotion to poetry, music, dance, and ingenious problem-solving.

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A woodworker and craftsman, Mr. Thomas taught industrial arts in Weymouth for 37 years.

“He had some wild kids in class, but they didn’t bother him at all,” said one of his former students, Ray Dupras of Hingham, who said Mr. Thomas would typically end detention periods five minutes after they began.

“He was the kind of teacher you always remember — a nice, easy-going, very mellow guy who was also a very big inspiration,” Dupras said.

Mr. Thomas, who was known to friends as Hal or Tom, also was involved in the school’s drama program, working with students to build sets and pitching in with rehearsals.

Retired music and drama teacher Doreen Grigaitis of Marshfield remembered the first time he knocked on her classroom door and asked if he could sit in.

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“He said he’d heard me explaining music to my students in a way that fascinated him,” she said. “That was Hal. He would do anything to make his life richer and fuller, and he’d do the same for people around him.”

Mr. Thomas was a regular at the Old Ship Church in Hingham, where he served on the building committee, mentored teenagers, and frequently loaned his carpentry talents to the meeting house, which was built in the 1600s.

“When a need arose he would just start in on it,” said the Rev. Kenneth Read-Brown, the church’s minister. “And he wouldn’t just do the work. He would use his confluence of skills to figure out first how it could be done in the most elegant way.”

Mr. Thomas’s design contributions include a conductor’s podium, a rack for folding tables and chairs, and wooden cabinetry.

A devotee of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson, Mr. Thomas “believed we are part of something larger than ourselves,” Read-Brown said. “He was a Transcendentalist who loved the material world.”

In a eulogy, Mr. Thomas’s grandson, Will, wrote that most of his memories of his grandfather “revolved around nature, whether it be barefoot meditation in the morning dew, scaling the rocks at Nantasket Beach, or wading in the murky waters of Houghton’s Pond.”

Mr. Thomas had an “affinity for precarious situations, like scaling ladders and mounting rooftops into his late 80s,” Will said. “When he was given a walker . . . it did not take him long to find out he could in fact move much faster than he had before, when he gave the walker a bit of a push and hoisted himself into the air.”

The only son of Baptist missionaries Dr. Harold Thomas Sr. and the former Gertrude Barbour, Harold Thomas Jr. was born in Ningbo, China, where he lived until age 15 surrounded by deep poverty.

While there his father, a radiologist, helped convert a one-room clinic into the Hwa Mei Hospital, which is now a large center of both Eastern and Western medicine.

“I think seeing his father working in the hospital, helping people in such critical need, really made an impression on him,” said Andy Chen of New Jersey, whose mother was a childhood friend of Mr. Thomas. “He loved to reminisce about China. He was always curious about the hospital and what it’s like now.”

Political strife forced his family’s return to the United States, where Mr. Thomas graduated from high school then enlisted in the Army as a World War II medic.

In a 2015 Storycorps.org interview, Mr. Thomas said that “because of the strong influence of being in China at the start of the war, because of the bombings in the city where I grew up . . . I made a decision that I would participate in the war in a way that I could help alleviate the pain it caused.”

His pro-peace, antiwar beliefs stayed with Mr. Thomas throughout his life, including a four-year period in the early 2000s when he and his wife were part of a group that staged weekly protests, outside the post office in downtown Hingham, against the US invasion of Iraq.

Though his first marriage, to Eva (John) Gordon in 1946, ended in divorce in 1953, they remained friends until her death in 2006.

After Mr. Thomas graduated from the University of New Hampshire and began teaching, he met Mary Rushit at a square dance in Cambridge. She said she was taken with his “imaginative and creative” dancing style, and accepted an invitation for conversation and coffee that lasted until 2 a.m. They married in 1959.

A service has been held for Mr. Thomas, who also held a master’s degree from Cornell University. Mary, Loren, and his two grandchildren are his immediate survivors.

In a eulogy, his granddaughter, Olivia, recalled Mr. Thomas’s gift for bringing her and her brother’s ideas to life, “whether it be a car made from old boxes or a three-story wooden house for one of my many stuffed animals.”

The projects were “always collaborative efforts,” she said.

“He provided the tools we needed, literally and figuratively,” she added, “then took a step back and let us work” in a workshop that “much like him, even with its strong, rough exterior, was filled with warmth.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmckenna6666@gmail.com.