LITTLE ROCK Jefferson Thomas, one of the Little Rock Nine who in 1957 integrated all-white Central High School, died Sunday.
Thomas, 67, passed away in Columbus, Ohio, said fellow Little Rock Nine member Minnijean Brown. He had pancreatic cancer.
Little Rock Nine's Thomas diesWatch Video
Melba Beals, another Little Rock Nine member, said Thomas was known for his great sense of humor. He always stayed close with his famous Central classmates, emailing a funny or sweet message to the group about once a week, Beals said.
"No matter what we were talking about or no matter how awful the day had been, he could always make a funny joke about it," she said, recalling their days at Central. "We are in deep pain thinking of him. We are all a family in a way. This is a great loss."
Thomas was a student at Dunbar Junior High School when he volunteered to integrate Central, according to a biography posted on the Little Rock Nine Foundation website.
The biography describes him as "quiet, soft-spoken, unique and special."
"He had a subtle, infectious sense of humor that served him well throughout his life," it reads. "He would find that sense of humor and his LOVE for humanity severely tested by the hate and violence directed toward him by some of the white students at Central High School."
In a 2007 interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Thomas said he channeled the advice of Martin Luther King Jr. as he endured torment from white students at Central.
The experience taught him to take a stand and persevere, he said then.
“You can’t control what other people do and how they treat you, but you do have control in how you react and respond to them,” Thomas said in that article. “I still do that every day.”
Thomas was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army who served in Vietnam, returning home in 1968. He then earned a degree in business administration at Los Angeles State College and helped run the family-owned Retail Sales Business. Thomas later became an accounting clerk with the Department of Defense and moved from California to Columbus when it shifted his department there, according to the online biography.
In Columbus, he served on the board of directors for the City of Refuge Learning Academy and the First Church of God Day Care Center.
Thomas is survived by wife Mary, son Jefferson Jr., and stepchildren Frank and Marilyn. Services are planned in Columbus and Los Angeles.
Brown said there might be a memorial service in Little Rock, but that details were still being worked out. Further information should be available later today, she said.