By Bill Studenc
For Western Carolina University alumni Robert and Suzanne Thomas, the seeds for two successful careers in international business were planted in the late 1960s and early 1970s during their time as students majoring in social science.
Those blooms that emerged from those seeds would later cross-pollinate into a love for global travel, a passion that is behind the couple’s recent planned gift of $125,000 in support of the Suzanne and Bob Thomas Study Abroad Endowment.
The Thomases also have made a second planned gift of $125,000 in support of Catamount athletics. That gift will be split evenly between athletics facilities improvements, the football program and the men’s golf team.
The planned gifts are part of the recently announced comprehensive “Fill the Western Sky” campaign, an effort to raise $75 million for the university’s academic, student engagement and athletics programs. The university has designated WCU athletics as a major campaign priority and is seeking to secure at least $30 million to help fund athletics facilities upgrades.
Both Thomases, who graduated from WCU with degrees in social science in 1970, point to their time as WCU classmates as critical to setting them on their road to successful business careers – and to their marriage 51 years after graduation.
Before entering the workforce, Bob Thomas fulfilled his military obligation by serving in U.S. Army Military Intelligence as a prisoner-of-war interrogator and translator during the Vietnam era. “This was my first exposure to a culture beyond Western North Carolina and the U.S. It was a life-changing experience,” he said.
After serving in the military for three years, he joined Scott Paper Co., working for more than two decades including an assignment leading the company’s Asian markets. He lived in Hong Kong for four years, and he traveled frequently to the 11 Pacific countries for which he had responsibility.
In a career spanning more than 40 years in business-to-business sales and corporate leadership, he has been president of three companies with responsibility for businesses throughout the U.S. and across Europe and South Africa, giving him exposure to even more cultures. He retired in December 2017.
“I was fortunate to have a career that took me all over the world, and I believe that this type of experience gives an individual a better perspective on their own country – particularly an appreciation for the amazing opportunities we have here,” he said. “If you have ambition, capability and a strong work ethic, you can go far beyond what you may have imagined.”
Like her husband, Suzanne Thomas began working in the business world, including smaller business and corporate environments. She became an entrepreneur, developing a business in the international coffee and tea industries, which included marketing strategies, communications, international speaking engagements, writing and publishing.
“Projects led me to client travel in Europe, South and Central America, Southwest Asia and the Middle East. Collaborative research projects with the U.N. International Trade Center and the Beverage Marketing Corp. provided an opportunity to work with professionals throughout the world,” she said. She later obtained her master’s degree in international business from another institution.
“When I decided to major in social science, I had no idea I was planting a seed that would mature into a tree with limbs growing in many directions. All I knew was I enjoyed the curriculum offered within the social science coursework,” she said. “It wasn’t until much later that social science was identified with five branches of study – anthropology, economics, political science, psychology and sociology. Over the years, I have utilized every branch that makes up the study of social science.”
Those combined experiences in international businesses led to their decision to make a planned gift to help future WCU students follow in their globe-trotting footsteps.
“WCU provided me with an educational foundation on which to build my career,” said Bob Thomas, a member of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at WCU. “My world was small when I was at WCU, but I think that the military opened doors for me to think bigger and experience the world. So, if a current student thinks that a global career would be fulfilling or if they want an experience far different from Cullowhee for a semester or two, doing so will change their view of the world in so many ways and create an educational experience that will benefit them for whatever they pursue.”
Active with the Sigma Kappa alumnae group at WCU, Suzanne Thomas also credits her marriage to husband Bob as another major factor in her life’s journey and decision to give to the university’s campaign.
“Bob sat across the aisle from me in many of my social science classes. We finally exchanged glances and started dating our senior year. As fate would have it, Bob was drafted into the Army and I started my first job in Atlanta with the Trust Company of Georgia (now Truist). Bob and I went our separate ways and life happened. It still does,” she said.
“Call it destiny or kismet that Bob and I reunited and married two years ago. Our journey together has brought us back to WCU, serving on the steering committee for ‘Fill the Western Sky.’ As a couple, we wanted to provide students with an opportunity to support their academic and life experiences,” she said.
In addition to enabling student travel-abroad opportunities, the Thomases are providing financial assistance to Catamount athletics.
“We believe that WCU athletics provides wonderful opportunities for talented student-athletes pursuing a quality education while competing at the collegiate level. WCU should be pursuing championships in every sport in which we compete in the Southern Conference. That requires WCU, as well as alumni and friends, to all do our best in providing quality facilities,” Bob Thomas said.
“We live in a very competitive world with our peer group in the Southern Conference and other collegiate competitors in the Southeast. When we benchmark our facilities and resources against that peer group, we have many areas of need,” he said. “The quality and availability of facilities and resources are key inputs into the decision-making process of young potential athletes when choosing where they will chase their dreams.”
Many alumni are unaware that, unlike some other states or WCU’s Southern Conference competitors, North Carolina traditionally has not provided state funding for collegiate athletic departments within the University of North Carolina System, the Thomases said.
“We realize a good athletics program is key to attracting key talent. To help make that happen, we made a commitment to help finance many of the much-needed new facilities,” Suzanne Thomas said. “We want to support students to plant their own seeds and watch them flourish into branches of worlds to be discovered.”
Contributions toward WCU’s men’s golf program stem from Bob Thomas’ interest in the sport. “I’m a golfer – not a very good one – and I would love to see us attract the highest quality players to attend WCU. We need better facilities and resources to do that,” he said. “The success of a talented alumnus like J.T. Poston, now enjoying success on the PGA Tour, demonstrates what is possible.” A 2015 graduate of WCU, Poston is ranked among the top 50 golfers on the Tour.
For both Thomases, the decision to make planned gifts to their alma mater provides an opportunity to give back to the university where they got their starts as business executives and philanthropists.
“Western was a school where it was possible to continue your education without accumulating personal debt, if you were willing to work and contribute to your expenses. I’m afraid that may be out of reach today at most schools, and students with limited resources must seek scholarship aid to pursue their degree,” said Bob Thomas, a first-generation college graduate whose father died when he was 9 years old, resulting in financial challenges for the family.
“Looking back, graduating from school without a debt burden is a valuable gift. I was fortunate to provide that gift to my three children as they attained their undergraduate degrees. I would like to contribute that gift for others.”
He and his first wife – Pam, who died in 2020 – previously established the Bob and Pam Thomas Endowed Scholarship Fund to provide aid to Brinson Honors College students pursuing degrees in business or engineering.
“Suzanne and I are both very proud, humble and fortunate to be able to make gifts to WCU. We realize all alumni may not have the same priority we do to give to WCU. We just hope and encourage alumni and friends to consider making WCU a philanthropic priority at some level because we all want to see our school thrive,” he said.
“Over the last 25 years or so, the landscape for taxpayer support for schools in the UNC System has changed dramatically. Public universities like WCU depend upon more philanthropy from all alumni because of the need to stay competitive academically and athletically,” he said.