Jerry Thomas' little brother found Jerry's perfect match and set out to make sure they met.
Jerry had left Batesville for Wichita, Kan., the day after he graduated from high school in 1952, worked in the wheat harvest until classes started at Wichita State University and then continued to work through school.
The first time I saw my future spouse:
She says: “We were at a dance. I thought he was really good-looking and intelligent, and those were the things that attracted me.”
He says: “She was really good-looking and she didn’t seem to be pretentious at all. She had a good figure, she was attractive. She was just everything I thought I was looking for. I liked her immediately.”
On our wedding day:
She says: “My brothers put all kinds of tin cans all over the back of the car, took us to downtown Wichita with all that rattling going on and cars honking and we were in a convertible.”
He says: “I know I was shaken by this step I had taken. This was a big step and I was awfully young and Evelyn was awfully young. So I had some butterflies.”
My advice for a long happy marriage
She says: “Communication is No. 1. Communicate and work together. And love, of course.”
He says: “Genuine love is important but I think respect for each other, to me, is most important. I respect her so much. She’s been the mother of our six children.”
Jim was dating the roommate of Evelyn Mertes, a business major at Wichita State, who also worked as a cashier at a drugstore.
"He said he needed to introduce me to Jerry," Evelyn says, "because he said we were so much alike. We were both driven to achieve, and that's kind of what he picked up on."
They were introduced at a dance club where all their friends hung out, and they hit it off immediately.
"I recognized right off that she was a young girl of substance, of direction. She was not one of these flitty types. She just seemed like a really good, solid person. That's what attracted me to her most, that she just seemed to be a principled, strong person," Jerry says. "Plus, I thought she was good-looking and she could dance good."
Jerry and Evelyn saw a movie on their first date in October 1953 and afterward she asked him to stop for ice cream.
That was a test, she says. It was pouring down rain that night, and she knew he would have to get out of the car and walk to the window to order their treats.
Jerry says he thought twice about it.
"I thought, 'It's raining. I've got to get out of the car?'" he says. "But I thought, 'Well, if that's what she wants, I'll do it.'"
They enjoyed seeing movies together, and dancing -- the jitterbug, the foxtrot, the bunny hop, the waltz.
"He was a good dancer," she says.
They also liked to go to Joyland, the local amusement park, and ride the Ferris wheel and the roller coaster.
Jerry had decided within a month or two of meeting Evelyn that she was, indeed, his perfect match. He gave her an engagement ring -- or he tried to, anyway. Evelyn was hesitant. She was living with her aunt at the time, and she wanted to keep it that way, at least for the time being.
"I wanted to stay with her and continue school," she says. "I wanted to wait a while."
Evelyn, a devout Catholic, insisted on meeting Jerry's family in Arkansas before they married, so they made a weekend visit. Jerry's parents adored Evelyn, and she adored them -- but his mother was reticent about their marriage.
"Evelyn was a cradle Catholic, and I had attended the Baptist church in Batesville. To get married in the Catholic church you have to take instructions and commit to certain things and mother was uncomfortable with that," he says.
He had won over Evelyn's godmother, though.
"She had told me, 'That Jerry boy is for you,'" Evelyn says. "That was her statement. So I just kind of waited it out."
She eventually accepted his engagement ring.
They exchanged their vows on May 29, 1954, in St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Wichita.
Jerry graduated from Wichita State with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and was promoted from tool and die maker by his then-employer, Cessna Aircraft, to chemical analyst.
He applied to medical school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, but his grades had suffered because of his full-time work schedule and he didn't get in.
After he got his rejection letter, he drove to Little Rock to explain himself to the dean face to face. The dean recommended that he take a year off work to focus on classes and apply again.
"We did that at the University of Arkansas," Jerry says.
Money was tight without his regular paycheck, but he did well and was accepted to medical school. He went on active duty with the U.S. Navy, and in 1961, he began an internship at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. From there he was sent to Pensacola, Fla., where he started flight school in aviation medicine, and then became a resident in surgery at the Naval hospital in Oakland, Calif.
Jerry did a tour in Vietnam while Evelyn and their five sons stayed on the base in Alameda, Calif., and when he returned they returned to Little Rock for his orthopedic residency at UAMS.
Jerry started Arkansas Orthopedic Associates, and retired as an orthopedic surgeon after 31 years. He is now a medical consultant.
Jerry and Evelyn raised six children -- Bob Thomas and Barry Thomas, both of Little Rock, Skip Thomas and Sen. Missy Thomas Irvin, both of Mountain View, John Thomas of Houston, and Vince Thomas, who died in 1994. They also have 20 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.
They will celebrate their 65th anniversary this year with their family and friends.
"It feels like forever," Evelyn says of their years together. "It's just a feeling that, not counting the years or whatever, I think it's more that we've just grown to be so much alike. I can't imagine not having him in my life."
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Dr. Jerry Thomas and his wife, Evelyn, will celebrate their 65th anniversary later this month. “It feels like forever,” Evelyn says of their years together. “It’s just a feeling that, not counting the years or whatever, I think it’s more that we’ve just grown to be so much alike. I can’t imagine not having him in my life.”
High Profile on 05/12/2019
Print Headline: He danced into her life and never sat one out