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Jim Thomas was part of Manteca Unified fabric
Thomas mug DSC_8558 LT.jpg

Respected educator and former Manteca schools’ superintendent Jim Thomas “could smell” trouble, nonsense he called it, a mile away including someone lying to him.

A native of Oklahoma, he never lost his southern drawl and always came across as a southern gentleman whether in a school setting, at church or in the business world.  Thomas passed away on Aug. 11 at age 93.

Thomas came to Manteca in 1959 from Owasa, Oklahoma to teach at Lincoln Elementary School. Just four years later he became the principal of Lincoln Elementary School on Yosemite Avenue replacing the then principal James McGlynn.  He graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1950 and from A&M teaching in Oklahoma for six years. He earned his Masters’ Degree at University of Tulsa.

When applying for a position in Manteca he was quoted as recalling, “Mr. Neil Hafley (elementary school superintendent) as a very impressive gentleman.”

“Dad would call out habitual liars who he confronted – he would just call ‘em out,” his son James said, adding that his father was really generous as well as being a very smart man. It was something his son said he learned from him in the art of handling people.

Before leaving Oklahoma, he taught Vocational Agriculture in the town of Owasso just outside Tulsa.  Donald Fruechting was one of his students who had continued to keep in contact until the present day out of admiration for his one-time teacher.  Other past students have continued to send him cards with their good wishes, his son said.

In 1973 an assistant superintendent position opened. Manteca Unified had 105 applications for the job, but Thomas was not one of them.  However, he stood out above the crowd of applicants and was named to the post.  He went on to negotiate contracts that led to some of the highest teachers’ salaries in the Central Valley while keeping the district in sound financial health.  Thomas and Harold Hughes, now living in Texas, served side by side as assistant superintendents. Hughes would follow Thomas as Manteca Unified superintendent.

Hughes remembered Thomas to be a “very intelligent and very capable person and a good administrator.  He was very fair minded and I worked with him for about 31 years.”

Thomas was named to the Manteca Hall of Fame in April of 2002. He was credited for his leadership, knowledge and the dedication he gave the district for over three decades. He retired in 1986.

“He had the education and the personnel and was also the chief negotiator for the district and knew they had to pay teachers well to get good people,” son James recalled. 

When he was district superintendent he was the one who set up the standards-based student assessment program. 

Thomas was a regular at the Stockton Marina where Ken Louder worked and they got to be friends.  Louder mentioned that his wife Judy was looking for a teaching job in the Manteca area and Jim told Ken to have Judy call him.  Call she did and that’s how she got a position at Lincoln School and on to Shasta Elementary teaching fourth grade.

Thomas’ grandfather was a coal miner in the Dust Bowl era in Panama, OK, where cotton king. It was in the small town of Buck Creek mining settlement where he found the special woman of his dreams, Neva, in nearby Bokushu, OK, who would spend 64 years of marriage with him. They raised a family of four educators. James was a business major but found his place in education too.

Brother Joe was a World War II bomber pilot who may have over extended his fuel supply or may have been shot down over French Indochina.  James said his brother received numerous commendations from then President Harry Truman.  Brother Robert Joe was a Navy CB in the U.S. Navy.

Thomas was in support of unification of the Manteca School District in 1966.  His young sons at home were part of the effort stuffing envelopes for a mailing to the Manteca and Lathrop communities. Brother Joe later taught at Neil Hafley Elementary School for almost all of his entire career and sister Jeanne taught school in Merced. Jim’s brothers and sister all went into education as did a granddaughter.

James said the whole family loved to go to Dave Wong’s Chinese Restaurant in Stockton. Several weeks before he passed, the entire family got together and ordered takeout for a family dinner to eat in the comfort of their parents’ Manteca home.

“It was a really nice send off,” James said. “His mind was so keen. He liked roulette and would test the system at home with a small roulette wheel.  He was testing his gaming theories at Lake Tahoe casinos and a boss came to the table and asked him what he was doing – so he backed off as he was winning too much consecutively.”

James said he spent a lot of time in the boat with his dad trout and salmon fishing. “He caught a couple of Sturgeons weighing over 100 pounds each,” he said.  “It took four hours to land one in Suisun Bay.”

On the way home, driving down Interstate 5, the 7-foot-long Sturgeon was hanging over the back of the pickup truck and other drivers were honking at them when they spotted it.

In his last months James took his dad to the doctor’s office to get an allergy shot with Jim in a wheelchair.

“I feel like a beer,” he said after the appointment.  James called brother Joe and asked him to meet them at Applebee’s because dad wanted to have a beer – later saying, “That was the coldest beer I ever had.”

 “The taxpayers really didn’t pay for McParland, August Knott, Joshua Cowell, Stella Brockman, Brock Elliott or Sierra High School,” James said, explaining that his dad was responsible for bringing that money into the Manteca Unified district.  Those funds are no longer available, he added.

Seven of Jim and Neva’s grandchildren attended Sierra High School with the name of the bordering street being Thomas Street.  The family and the district hoped to name it Jim Thomas Street but were told the first name of a person was never used.

Two days before his death his condition improved, James said, and he became very alert and asked for a beer.  The family has their last photograph of him lying in bed with that beer in his hand for the last time. 

“He loved Manteca.  On the way to the doctor’s office during his last days, he said how much he loved Manteca, saying it was a great town,” his son James recalled.

To contact Glenn Kahl, email