Paul A. Thomas, Ph.D., a renowned researcher, prolific speaker and champion of budding horticulturists, died Saturday, Sept. 14. He was 65.
Thomas devoted his life to the study of horticulture. His numerous accomplishments included publishing more than 350 peer-reviewed scientific and outreach articles, receiving 41 academic awards and giving more than 600 presentations to industry groups. For his decades of service, the Society of American Florists honored him last year with the Alex Laurie Award for outstanding achievement in research.
Thomas especially loved mentoring students and helping them embark on horticultural careers — a topic he discussed in his acceptance speech during SAF’s 2018 Stars of the Industry Awards Dinner and in the Viewpoint column of Floral Management. For more than 20 years, he was a professor at the University of Georgia, where he taught greenhouse management, horticultural business practices and interiorscaping classes. A key component of his program was facilitating experiential learning through industry internships. Thomas served as the State Extension Specialist in floriculture. In this position, he planned and implemented regional and state programs involving greenhouses and the florist industry.
He had recently retired from UGA and, just this month, started work as the American Floral Endowment’s ambassador for internships and scholarships. He was traveling between universities when he passed away. Prior to his new position, he reviewed research grants and scholarship applications for AFE and also helped coordinate internship promotional videos the organization still uses today.
“I’m heartbroken,” said Debi Chedester, AFE’s executive director, who worked with Thomas for many years and admired his commitment to setting up students for success. “He stayed in touch with every single one of them and was a proud papa when he learned of a past student’s new career position or life event,” she said. “Paul’s love for this industry was undeniable. He lived it every day and, even upon retirement, chose to travel to tell students about the opportunities for young professionals. The industry lost an amazing educator, advocate and friend.”
His UGA colleague, Marc van Iersel, Ph.D., applauded Thomas’s talent for nudging students out of their comfort zones. “Paul’s assurances and encouragement allowed many students to pursue dreams and careers they otherwise would not have,” he said. “Perhaps his biggest impact was not that he believed in the students but that he was able to make the students believe in themselves.”
Although the horticulture community lost one of its greatest activists, through these students, “Paul’s legacy will continue for generations to come,” said Leonardo Lombardini, Ph.D., the head of UGA’s horticulture department.
In honor of his passion for the industry and education, the University of Georgia Department of Horticulture established the Paul Thomas Memorial Fund through the American Floral Endowment. To learn more and make a contribution, click here.
A visitation will be held Friday, Sept. 27, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Lord & Stephens Funeral Homes, 4355 Lexington Road, Athens, GA 30605. His memorial service will be Saturday, Sept. 28, at 2 p.m. at Corinth Baptist Church, located at 2040 Belmont Road in Arnoldsville, Georgia.
Katie Hendrick Vincent is the senior contributing editor for the Society of American Florists.