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Chico State

Fond Farewell: Biology Professor Emeritus Robert Thomas

Dr. Robert "Bob" Thomas shown running competitively, which was one of his many passions.

Chico State Biology Professor Emeritus Dr. Robert “Bob” Thomas, who taught at the University for nearly 40 years, passed away on October 27. He was 86.

Born February 17, 1936, in Salineville, Ohio, Thomas graduated from Salineville High School in 1954. He volunteered for the Army and used the GI Bill to attend Kent State University where he earned his BS, MS, and PhD in biology.

Thomas was hired at Chico State in 1966 and worked as a biology faculty member until 2005. In 2017, he was named to the Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association Hall of Honor. Thomas was the recipient of several honors during his tenure on campus. He received the Outstanding Professor Award in 1983 and 1984, and the Outstanding Teacher Award in 2006. He was a charter recipient of the University Professional Achievement Honors in 1981 and received the award again in 1986 and 1994. He also received the Charles Y. Conkle Annual Scientific Publication Award presented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1984.

Thomas’ students praised him for his preparation, commitment, and enthusiasm, which was demonstrated by his ever-present smile. As an advisor, Thomas assisted approximately 100 Chico State students to gain admission to medical school and served as faculty advisor for the Pre-Med Association for 13 years. From 2000 to 2006, 42 of his students entered MD, PhD, or other terminal degree programs.

Professor Emeritus Michael Abruzzo, a colleague of Thomas’ for more than three decades, described him as an excellent friend, teacher, and researcher.

“I was a little younger, so I looked up to him,” Abruzzo said. “I had the utmost respect for him as a teacher. Throughout my career the students would rave about him, saying how excellent he was and how dedicated he was to helping them succeed.”

Thomas traveled to Alaska during 30 summers to research the Exxon Valdez spill. His work was supported by grants from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees Council, and the NOAA. He became a nationally recognized expert on the impact of such disasters on marine animals.

Organic Chemistry Professor David Ball appreciated the high standards Thomas had for his colleagues and students.

“Bob had this saying that he who does research in his field ends up being a better teacher,” Ball said. “He was adamant that professors should be on the cutting edge.”

He had similarly lofty expectations for his students.

“Students loved him even though he was a very challenging instructor,” Ball said. “Every student that went through the class came out a much better person and student.”

Thomas was an avid runner, completing over 50 marathons and half marathons between 1979 and 2006. If he was not running, he was often on his bike. He rode his bike to the University every day, rain or shine.

Ball was not just a colleague, but also Thomas’ jogging buddy, joining him on runs five days a week, most weeks, for more than 30 years.  

“He was an extremely bright man, and curious. An avid listener,” Ball said. “When he was learning something new, he wanted to know everything.”

At home, he was a constant gardener, known for excellent tomatoes, onions, peppers, dill pickles, and Meyer lemons.

Thomas is survived by his wife, Judy; his daughters and their husbands, Capt. Beth Thomas, USN (ret) and Maj. Scott McKenzie, USAF (ret) and Susan Thomas and Freeland Abbott; his nephew and his wife, John (Brenda) Thomas; and his grandnephew and niece and their families, Cory (Missy) Thomas and their children Chloe, Owen, and Kylie; and Kristin and Grant Thompson and their son Kurt. He is also survived by his sisters-in-law and their families, Sarah (Ed) Brown and their children, Amanda (Rav) Rampersaud, and their children Sophia and Ava; Melissa (Jeremy) Maranzano and their children Sydney, Mia, and Oliver; and Patrick Brown; and Rebecca Howe and her children, Kara (Brian) Howe-LaMonica; and Lindsay (Mark) Saunders.

A memorial service took place at Our Divine Savior Catholic Church in Chico on November 15. Memorial contributions may be made in his name to the Robert E. Thomas Merit Award, a scholarship for biology students established by students in his honor.

The University flag will be lowered Wednesday, November 30, in his memory.