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Photo by Valarie Schwartz. John Thomas enjoyed a standing ovation during his last time on the stage at Hanes Theatre, which he managed for 30 years while teaching at Chapel Hill High School.
Valarie Schwartz

John Thomas has left the theater.

After 30 years of teaching theater tech at Chapel Hill High School and managing Hanes Theatre, Thomas announced his retirement last spring. He could not officially retire until the end of August; but with the new school year beginning then, it was on Oct. 3 that the school community wished Thomas a fond farewell.

“J.T.,” as fellow teachers, students and parents know him, came to Chapel Hill in 1976 with a master’s degree from the University of California-Davis and a wish to develop community theater here. With the ArtsCenter (then called the Carrboro Art School) in its infancy, founder Jacques Menache tapped him to start the theater program, and The Gallery Theatre opened that summer. Two years later, with the theater playing the role of first tenant in the newly opened Carr Mill Mall, Thomas was broke. He reluctantly sought and accepted the job as theater manager for the new state-of-the-arts Hanes Theatre.

“The last thing in the world I wanted to do then was high school theater,” he said in a speech at the school two years ago.

He and his co-workers would change the definition of high school theater with the standards they would set.

Mark Nielsen, the drama teacher at CHHS when Thomas arrived, played emcee to his going-away ceremony.

“I worked with John for eight years on 52 productions,” Nielsen said as he took attendees down a memory lane tour.

Thomas worked with four drama teachers who also served as directors of each production — Nielsen, Theresa Grywalski, David Sorrells and Thomas Drago. They were all on hand to cheer Thomas into the next phase of his life, which will include working with his wife, Dale, in a landscaping and gardening business she started following retirement a few years ago. The couple, married 20 years, lives in Raleigh.

Lindy Spencer (Class of 2006) was among several former students who spoke. “My life would be a far more boring and less perverse place without JT,” she said, beginning her speech as though she was there to roast him. “He was an ideal role model. We did more than love him, we respected him — he was like a teenage boy only with knowledge — and he was the driving force behind the techies. He trusted us and believed in us even when we were wrong.”

Eric Hirsh (Class of 2002), the first of four from his family to spend their high school years in the performance arts wing, remembered how much Thomas had allowed students to do. “Looking back, he never asked how things were going. He trusted us to do things. It really was the students running the show,” he said.

Hirsh, a performance analyst with Zenph Studios in Raleigh, shared how he had recently produced a show in the Apollo Theater in New York City based on knowledge gained through his years in dramatic arts at CHHS. He discovered he had learned well.

“Thanks for all you taught me and thanks for all the times you let students teach themselves,” Hirsh said.

Thomas endured the roasting and praising and even the presentation of his own mirrored ball (a miniature of the one that has hung in Hanes since the Nielsen days). He sang the froggy song, kissed his wife on stage and before leaving it said, “Ya’ll behave yourselves.”
Some will and some won’t; but for all who have known the J.T. era, it will never be the same.

Contact Valarie Schwartz at 923-3746 or valariekays AT mac DOT com

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