Published in Fall 2012 | “Can I have a hug, too?”
A second-grader has stopped in front of Ruth Ann Thomas and waits while she gives hugs in the hallway of Anderson Creek Primary School. Behind him, more hands go up for hugs, and it’s clear that “Miss Thomas” is a magnet of warmth and affection at this Harnett County school south of Lillington. Quiet and humble, full of smiles and encouragement, Thomas is a clerical assistant who’s worked more than 30 years at Anderson Creek Primary and South Harnett Elementary, and there doesn’t seem to be a student, teacher or custodian who isn’t family and friend to her.
In 1951, 5-year-old Ruth Ann Salmon came to Methodist Orphanage (MO) in Raleigh from Lillington with younger sisters Lou Faye, 4, and Rachel, 3. The three Salmon girls had recently lost their mother and their father, struggling with health issues, was unable to care for them. Their mother’s family already had kin on campus—uncle Wade Salmon and two aunts had lived there since 1945—so the girls were not totally among strangers.
Thinking back on those years at MO, Thomas recalls teachers who encouraged her, including one in second grade who inspired a love of reading. “Sometimes when you finished an especially challenging book, Ms. George would reward you by taking you home to spend a night at her house,” she says. Thomas loved books so much that she would sneak into the bathroom after “lights out” and read in the bathtub.
An affinity for school administrative work is something Thomas developed during the summers of her 6th- and 7th-grade years, when she’d leave campus a few days a week to work for the principal and secretary at Daniels Junior High School in Raleigh. “I really liked being at the school office, even with students gone,” she says.
Summers and holidays also meant a chance for the Salmon sisters to visit home, usually to stay with their grandmother. Aunt Rachel Edwards took them on Sundays to Union United Methodist Church. In the fall of 1962, they left MO for good and returned home to Harnett County, where Thomas lived with her father and Aunt Rachel and finished her last two years of high school.
Marriage to Bob Thomas, “my wonderful husband,” soon followed, as did a flurry of office and bookkeeping jobs until motherhood began. Staying home until their youngest, Jennifer, was in kindergarten, Thomas started volunteering at the school where her firstborn, Brian, was enrolled. She quickly moved to a paid position with the school system, balancing a career with community volunteering, helping at her beloved Union UMC and, later, doting on her two grandchildren, Raine and Brett.
Thomas likes to stay busy, and she currently fills a few evening and weekend shifts at a branch of the Harnett County Public Library near her home. “The only work that I regularly miss is on Good Friday,” she says. “Everyone knows I’m off that day heading for Raleigh and the alumni reunion.”
The annual Easter weekend gathering of MO/MHC alumni is precious to Thomas, and she enjoys a regular role preparing food and drink in the hospitality room alongside MO “sisters” Iva Winstead and Judy Stallings.
When the reunion ends with a barbecue lunch at MHC administrative headquarters, Thomas is always the last to the leave after vacuuming the carpets and wiping down the tables. “Easter is my favorite day of the year,” she says. “I love these folks so much because they are so positive and so loving. Coming to MO was the best thing that ever happened to me.” — Peter MacBeth