Monday, December 10, 2012 11:33 PM
Community mourns Dr. Vincent Thomas' death
By Jon Jimison | Times Editor
When Dr. Vincent Thomas faced a cancer diagnosis in June, the letters of support started — hundreds of them. Some people knocked on the door of his home. One person offered to mow the lawn, anything to help.
His patients and friends wanted Thomas and his family to know they were thinking about him.
Thomas, a beloved Wilson optometrist, died Monday at home following a fight with lung cancer. He was 72.
He leaves behind a large, loving family and literally thousands of patients.
"This is a big loss to this community,” said Dr. Kevin G. Payne, who worked with Thomas at Wilson Eye Associates, a large practice Thomas founded.
"His patients adored him and people who worked with him adored him,” said Thomas’ wife, Catherine "Kitty” Thomas.
In fact, Wilson Eye Associates didn’t operate Monday in honor of Thomas. The practice will close again during Thomas’ funeral Wednesday.
"He was the backbone of the practice,” Payne said.
Thomas stopped practicing in June to focus on fighting his cancer. But he always hoped to return, Payne said.
"His patients really missed him,” Payne said. "They get teary eyed. He is very well liked and respected in the community.”
Thomas was one of five children born to Albert S. and Lena Farris Thomas.
His life is a testament to work ethic and a literal love letter to his family, friends said.
Allen Thomas of Thomas & Farris, a large law firm in Wilson, describes his brother Vince as his best friend, a gifted athlete and absolutely essential in the early days of his law firm.
Vincent Thomas once owned the original law firm building on Nash Street and allowed Thomas to work out of it rent free for a long time when Allen Thomas was struggling financially. This was back in the early days of the law firm. Vincent Thomas also helped make repairs to the building. It’s something Allen Thomas will never forget.
And it’s just part of what makes Vincent Thomas so special, Allen Thomas said.
His brother never sought the limelight or the credit. But he was absolutely essential to his success, which started then and continues today, he said.
"He would never take credit for anything,” Allen Thomas said. "He would always want to give someone else the credit. He is the one when I made the move with five children and nothing that he literally gave me the building and kept me on my feet.”
Allen Thomas remains in awe of his brother’s athletic prowess, particularly in football and basketball.
Vincent Thomas graduated from Charles L. Coon High School, where he was president of the student body and a star athlete. Colleges in the Southeast recruited him for both football and basketball.
"He was all-state quarterback his senior year,” said his brother Albert S. Thomas Jr. "He was recruited by numerous universities for college football and basketball. He turned down the college scholarship in football but decided to accept a basketball scholarship to Georgetown University.”
His family really wanted him to concentrate on school and academics, Albert Thomas Jr. said.
He loved his family and opted against the athletic scholarships, choosing instead to stay closer to home at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he eventually graduated.
"He intensely loved his family,” said Thomas Jr., a former judge on the N.C. Court of Appeals and former chief district court judge who retired from the bench and now practices at Thomas & Farris. "He would do anything for them and was the person we would go to if we had a problem or questions. We would go to Vincent and he would provide the help. He was so gentle.”
And while he never sought the spotlight, Vincent Thomas was always working in the background, racking up achievements, family members said.
Vincent was a very intelligent man, always seeking to learn more, said Kitty Thomas of her husband of four decades.
Even after completing his optometry education, Thomas traveled to London to learn more about the eyes, always seeking ways to help his patients, she said.
He also leaves behind two children, Charles Thomas and Catherine Thomas Andrews, who both became attorneys and work as assistant district attorneys in Wilson County.
IN A LIFETIME
Thomas began practicing optometry in Wilson in 1968. He served as a trustee of the N.C. State Optometric Society and as a member of the N.C. Board of Examiners in Optometry.
He was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the Wilson Jaycees. For his work in furthering eye care in North Carolina, he received the Order of the Longleaf Pine, the highest civilian award given to a state resident. As a lifelong member of St. Therese Catholic Church, he served as chairman of the Parish Advisory Council and is a member of the Knights of Columbus.
Payne has been Thomas’ partner since 1995, when Wilson Eye Associates incorporated. Today, the practice has more than 30,000 patients.
"People on the street would stop him and pray for him and that touched him,” Payne said of the months following Thomas’ cancer diagnosis. "He was a man who was loved in this community. He was very proud of his family and his wife. He put his heart and soul into his family.”
Right now, employees and doctors are focused on trying to get through the next few days. Payne said the remaining doctors, which include Dr. Ralph Perry, Dr. Ralph Perry Jr., Dr. Russell Stone and part-time ophthalmologists Dr. James Holland and Dr. Nitin Gupta, will help Thomas’ patients at the Montgomery Drive business.
Survivors also include a sister, Mary Thomas Williams, and grandchildren, Charles and James Thomas. He was preceded in death by his parents and a sister, Carolyn Thomas Marley.
The family will receive friends from 6 to 8 tonight at Joyner’s Funeral Home, 4100 Raleigh Road Parkway. A memorial Mass will be held Wednesday at 11 a.m. at St. Therese Catholic Church, 700 Nash St. W., Wilson. Interment will follow in Maplewood Cemetery.
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