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Dr. William C. Thomas Jr., pioneer in the Marines and pathologist, dies at 87


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Updated: November 18, 2013 7:55AM

When William C. Thomas Jr. became one of the first African Americans to join the Marine Corps nearly 70 years ago, the welcome he got wasn’t exactly warm.

One of his officers “was large, hated blacks and often used the N-word,” he recalled years later. White rifle-range trainers said black soldiers couldn’t shoot straight.

After boot camp, he and other overseas-bound African-American Marines rode a train down South from their base in Jacksonville, N.C., he said in a family history he wrote in 2009.

“As we entered Mississippi, the [white] officers ordered us to pull down and keep the blinds closed. The officers then went out and stood on the stairways,” he said. “Being nosy, I peeped out and all along the hills were a bunch of rednecks with their rifles and shotguns prepared to shoot up black troop trains.

“The thought came to me that these swine were out to kill us while we were going overseas, maybe to die, to protect them,” he wrote.

He grew up in small-town Pennsylvania in an era when he couldn’t eat at most lunch counters, and his teacher told him he would never become a doctor.

He proved his teacher wrong, becoming a pioneering pathologist. He also shared in the Congressional Gold Medal — Congress’ highest civilian honor — issued to the so-called Montford Point Marines, the African Americans who integrated the Marine Corps in 1942. He was too frail to travel to Washington, D.C. for the 2012 ceremony, so Marines came to his Wilmette home to present it to him.

Dr. Thomas died of heart failure in August at Evanston Hospital. He was 87.

He grew up in Uniontown, Penn., the son of a homemaker mother, Katherine, and his father, William, a carpenter, bricklayer and minister. His father “always told me that no matter what the barrier, I could be whatever I wanted,” Dr. Thomas said in the family history.

Still, he could remember night rides by the Klan when he was a boy.

“One time they rode through town and burned a cross on one of the hills,” said his son, John.

When a high school teacher asked about his aspirations, he told her he wanted to be a physician. She told him a job as an auto mechanic would be a more realistic goal.

He had a Native-American football coach who let him play quarterback, an unusual position for an African-American player in those days. When the team rode the bus to night games at schools as far as 40 miles away, the bus stopped at restaurants, “and the coach would go in and ask if they could accommodate 18 players with one Negro,” he wrote.

“All were welcome except the Negro,” Dr. Thomas said, “so we never ate on return trips.’’

In 1945, he enlisted in the Marines. Boot camp infractions were met with harsh punishment. “If they failed some kind of inspection,” his son said, “his fellow Marines would be required — in bare feet — to stand on an upside-down metal pail, holding a 7-pound rifle, doing knee bends.”

Montford Point Marines can be compared to the Tuskegee Airmen for opening up the armed services, said Chuck Melson, chief historian of the U.S. Marine Corps. At that time, white marines trained mostly at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and the new, black Marines trained separately, at Montford Point — later renamed Camp Johnson. “Before Montford Point, you had a segregated Marine Corps. After Montford Point, you really couldn’t make any more excuses about the rights of citizenship and the right to serve in any of the armed forces,” Melson said.

After boot camp, Dr. Thomas was sent to Guam, where he was a rigger on a troop ship. Occasionally, he had to guard Japanese prisoners. Some Japanese soldiers were still hiding out in caves on the island. Dogs were used to sniff them out, he said.

Returning stateside, he moved in with an aunt and uncle in Springfield, Mass. He pursued a bachelor of science degree at Springfield College and volunteered at Springfield Hospital. There, he saw his first autopsy.

In 1955, he graduated from Boston University Medical School. He interned at Detroit Receiving Hospital, where he met his wife of 53 years, Betty Driessen. She was white, so “because of the segregation, we [traveled] into Canada to sit in their parks,” he wrote in his memoir.

During a residency at Detroit’s Ford Hospital, he went to the operating room to get a specimen, he wrote, and “When I put out my hand for the tissue, the surgeon looked down and then up and yelled, ‘When in the hell did they let you in here?’ ”

He practiced at Michael Reese and Mount Sinai hospitals, where he worked for 33 years and was vice chair of the pathology department.

In 1968, the Thomas family settled in Wilmette, where stones and glass were thrown on their lawn, Dr. Thomas later recalled. There were harassing phone calls and slurs from passing cars. But “over time and with the support of neighbors, life became good,” he said.

Dr. Thomas would visit schools to talk about the ravages of smoking and drinking, transfixing the children. “He would actually bring in diseased organs like livers and hearts,’’ his son said.

He loved his pet dogs. One of his favorites was Marley, who gave him comfort after the 2001 suicide of his son, Bill.

“He was sitting on the couch, crying uncontrollably, and Marley, this big, 100-pound Rottweiller, got up and put one paw on one shoulder and one paw on the opposite shoulder, so he’s standing in front of my dad, licking his face, trying to comfort him, and he said that was what he needed at that moment.”

In addition to his wife, Betty, and his son John, Dr. Thomas is survived by another son, Chris, and three grandchildren. A memorial service is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Joseph Church, 1747 Lake Ave., Wilmette.

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