He was born on September 7, 1925 in New Orleans, Louisiana and attended elementary school at Holy Ghost Catholic School and Corpus Christi Catholic School. He attended New Orleans’ public middle and high school at Tommy LaFon and graduated from McDonald No. 35 Public School.
His college career began at Xavier University of New Orleans for two years prior to being drafted into the U.S. Army to serve his country in World War II. During war he served in the United States, France, Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany, the Philippines and Korea. After his honorable discharge from the Army he enrolled at Kansas State College, where he received the Bachelors and Masters Degree. While at Kansas State College, he was elected to Honor Society in Mathematics, Honor Society in Physics, and Epsilon Pi Tau Honor Society in Technology. He later enrolled at Pennsylvania State University, and then Ohio State University where he received his Ph.D. degree 1957. As a youth, Dr. Thomas was an active member of Boy Scout Troop 134 in New Orleans, LA. He continued his interest and financial support of the Boy Scouts Program until his death.
Dr. Thomas joined the University faculty in February 1949. He was promoted to Director of the Technology Division, Dean of a College of Industrial Education and Technology and then appointed President of the University on November 22, 1966. Early in his administration, with the approval of The Texas A&M University System Regents, Dr. Thomas established a long-range planning council. Meetings were conducted at strategic geographical areas throughout the State of Texas. These meetings included community leaders, alumni, business leaders, grass roots, citizens, etc. The outcome of the council work was an exhaustive long-range plan which still impacts the growth of the University.
As an outgrowth of this plan and its recommendations, the Texas State Legislature changed the name of the institution to Prairie View A&M University and its status as an independent unit of the Texas A&M University was reconfirmed, effective August 15, 1973. The plan also led to a major campus renovation and construction program which included the purchase of the nine-story Hermann building in the Texas Medical Center, which was renovated for the Prairie View A&M University College of Nursing.
The long range plan also led to tremendous changes in curricula, student services, facilities, degrees, the Cooperative Extension Program and the Agricultural Research Center, including the International Dairy Goat Center, the first of its kind in the nation.
Dr. Thomas believed that the primary purpose of Prairie View A&M University was the creation of human capital, with ethical and moral values, cultural literacy, professional and technical knowledge, skills and leadership characteristics to enable self-sufficiency, and to preserve and strengthen our democracy and our free enterprise system.
This philosophy led to the creation of numerous undergraduate and graduate degrees during his administration. The university’s enrollment also increased more that 30%. The number of graduates increased from 605 in 1966 to 1135 in 1982. He was especially proud of the establishment of the Navy ROTC Program, the only Navy ROTC unit at a historically African-American university. During his administration, the Prairie View Naval ROTC commissioned more African-American Naval Officers than any other university, other than the Naval Academy. Also during his tenure, the number of Army ROTC officers commissioned rose from 25 per year to almost 100 per year. It was from this background in November 1973, that Dr. Thomas developed the slogan: “Prairie View Produces Productive People.”
From 1966 to 1982, twenty-one new honor societies were established in academic areas throughout the University. In 1969, Dr. Thomas commissioned a group and established chapters of the social fraternities and sororities of the National Pan Hellenic Council, including Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Phi Beta Sigma, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, Sigma Gamma Rho and Iota Phi Theta, along with the installation of the undergraduate Pan Hellenic Council. Prior to this time, the students formed social clubs which was the beginning of these organizations. In 1969, Prairie View A&M University purchased a franchise in the Miss Texas/Miss America Scholarship Pageant, the only historically African-American university to provide its students with this opportunity.
Many innovative college and pre-college programs were established from 1966 to 1982. Among these were the Junior Fellow/Senior Fellow Residence Hall Programs, Student Honor Roll Banquet, the University Without Walls, the Weekend College for adult students, Experiment-in-Living, Engineering Concepts Institute, Minority Introductions to Engineering (MITE), Premedical Concepts Institute, Operation Success, Project Pride, Century II Book Review, and the Pride of Prairie View Club, etc. Additionally, his personable approach to management led to the creation of the monthly faculty and staff recognition program.
From 1982-1983, Dr. Thomas served as Executive Vice-President for Development and in 1983, he became Director, Houston Nursing Facility. He retired from active service with the University in August 1992. The University established, and he maintained the Office of President-Emeritus in the Prairie View A&M University, College of Nursing Center in the Texas Medical Center.
Dr. Thomas’ altruism extended to the community through his services on many boards and programs including as a consultant to Dow Chemical Company, Litton Industries, and Westinghouse Management Service. He served as a member of the White House Conference on Children and Youth, the Governor’s Commission on Rural Development, and was active on many committees and councils of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. He was also a leader in the incorporation of the City of Prairie View in 1968-69. He also founded and directed the Carver Institute African American Think Thank in 1990 and helped to form the Liberia Cutting Group, Inc. in 2008. He worked in Liberia, West Africa and helped to restructure the Booker T. Washington Technical Institute at Kakata, Liberia, established in 1926 by the Phelp Stokes Fund. He was a member of President George H.W. Bush’s delegation to observe the election in Namibia, South Africa. In 1973, he established the Prairie View-Bahamas Friendship Scholarship Program to commemorate the independence of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, which resulted in some 300 students receiving degrees from Prairie View A&M University.
In 1974, Dr. Thomas was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (Houston Branch). He served as Chairman of the Board from 1977-1979.
To commemorate the Centennial Anniversary of the University, Dr. Thomas established the Centennial Council and organized the university’s first Capital Campaign culminating with the Centennial Endowment Banquet in 1978, in Houston, Texas. Dr. Thomas is a recipient of many honors including the Epsilon Pi Tau Laureate Citation for Administrative Leadership; Distinguished Alumni Award from Kansas State College; Holt Fellow, Yale University; Distinguished Alumni Award, Ohio State University; Outstanding Educational Service Medal by The Republic of Liberia; the Eagle Scout Award, the Boy Scout Silver Beaver Award from the Texas San Jacinto Council of the Boy Scouts of America Houston; the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, the second highest civilian given by the U.S. Army; and the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the highest civilian award given by the U.S. Department of the Army. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and Sigma Pi Phi (Nu Boule).
By action of the Board of Regents, The Texas A&M University System, Dr. Thomas was given the permanent title of President-Emeritus in April 1983. In December 2002, in recognition of his services to Prairie View A&M University, the Board of Regents named the University Administration Building the Alvin I. Thomas Building.
Dr. Thomas is survived by his loving and devoted wife Clarissa Gamble Thomas; Iris Butler Thomas, the mother of his four children: - sons, Kenneth C. Thomas and Michael D. Thomas (Lark McCarthy); and daughters, Janet M. Thomas and Julie E. Thomas; his sister Joyce Thomas Mouton, brother Henry James Thomas (Sadie), and brother Aldon A. Thomas (Barbara). Other relatives include a host of grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews. His surviving extended family includes, Mary Bush Johnson, Rosie L. Matlock and Frederick V. Roberts Esquire; and his church family at St. Mary of the Purification Church, Rosedale at Ennis.
Funeral services were held for Dr. Thomas on October 5 at the St. Mary of the Purification Catholic Church on 3006 Rosedale Street.
Entombment for Dr. Thomas will take place Monday, October 7, 2013, 11:00 a.m., All Saints Mausoleum, Metairie Cemetery, 5100 Pontchartrain Boulevard, New Orleans, Louisiana 70124.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be made to the Dr. Alvin I. Thomas Memorial Endowment at the St. Mary of the Purification Montessori School, 3002 Rosedale, Houston, Texas 77004.
Condolences may sent to the Dr. Alvin I. Thomas Family, 2646 South Loop West, Suite 275, Houston, TX 77054.