Columnist: UGA’s man of the Greatest Generation — Dr. Gerald Thomas

Being a World War II aficionado, I was taken aback when I learned that Georgia’s longtime optometrist Dr. Gerald Thomas was a distinguished member of the Greatest Generation. Not that I would not thought him likely or capable – it was that he kept so quiet about it.

The first that I heard about his military heroics was at his funeral when the minister brought it up. There were many WWII men of courage who were like Gerald, tight-lipped and taciturn regarding their involvement in combat.

If you knew any who experienced battlefield exposure and intensive action, you became acutely aware that they usually refrained from any conversation or narrative. It was historian Stephen Ambrose, who introduced me to many of the veterans I came to know.

He had convinced them that they should share their stories for posterity. Some did, much to the chagrin of other veterans who felt a few talked too much. Some, like Gerald, did not.

To think that I have chased down men who survived D-Day in places in Canada, Europe and across the U. S. and then learn that there was a man, who won a Bronze Star, right under my nose, left me a little flabbergasted. His son, Jerry, said after his dad’s service, that he tried every way imaginable to wrangle out of his father details about his military career.

“All he would talk about was how much fun Paris was on leave,” Jerry laughed. “He never admitted that he did anything special and never revealed any details.

Officially, “The Bronze Star Medal … is a United States Decoration awarded to members of the United States Armed Forces for either heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement or meritorious service in a combat zone.” Gerald got his Bronze Star for “meritorious service during the period 25 Sept. ‘44 to 8 May ‘45 in France and Germany in connecting with military operations against the enemy of the United States.”

A native of Stuart, Florida, Gerald was introduced to optometry through an uncle, Walter Wilkinson of Eastman. While staying with friends in Griffin, preparing for the state boards, he remembered, “someone suggested, ‘Why don’t you check out Athens?’ I had never been to Athens, but liked it immediately even though I didn’t know a single person in town.”

Later on when he got his license, he set up practice here and before long, like almost everyone else in town, became caught up in the spirit of Georgia football. “Where I grew up, football was nothing like it is in Athens,” Gerald said. I fell in love with the Bulldogs and my feelings for Georgia never abated.”

Georgia’s Director of Sports Medicine, Ron Courson, is one of three athletic trainers – following Dick Copas and Warren Morris – to work with Gerald Thomas and has always had a high regard for the altruistic influence of the Bulldog optometrist.

“Dr. Thomas was one of the most generous people I have ever met,” Courson says. “He always had time for everyone, and made them feel special. Georgia was one of the first in the nation to pioneer sports optometry. Gerald certainly made a difference in our program.

“There was a personal side which made him so special to all of us. He, and his wife, Sarah, frequently shared their home to entertain medical staff, coaches and student trainers. He was always emphasizing the importance of academics. We are proud to have a graduate athletic training award presented annually in his name to a grad student with the highest GPA.

“It was not uncommon for him to give a young staff member some money with a note, ‘Take your wife out for a nice dinner.’ My kids considered Gerald and Sarah as their ‘honorary grandparents.’ He adopted stray cats behind his office on Baxter Street and fed them daily. He was highly involved nationally in field of optometry as is his son, Stuart, who has followed in his footsteps.”

Gerald Thomas, a reluctant war hero, played the same role in his community. Do for others, but take no bows.

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