For close to a quarter century, DeAnn Thomas has been a constant presence in Kalispell’s high schools.
“It truly has been a labor of love,” she said.
Now, after 23 years in the school district, Thomas is retiring. It’s a decision that has saddened her colleagues, even as they wish her well.
“DeAnn’s awesome, and we will miss her greatly,” Assistant Superintendent Dan Zorn said.
Thomas’ career in Kalispell schools began as a volunteer when her children were in school in the early 1980s. Then she heard a neighbor talk about Flathead CARE, a fledgling nonprofit dedicated to helping students choose to live drug- and alcohol-free.
By 1985, she was working in Flathead High School with CARE groups — support groups for students who wanted to live drug-free, were from homes where drugs and alcohol were abused, or were recovering from their own drug use.
When she wasn’t working with the groups, Thomas was studying at and working for Flathead Valley Community College.
“The more I became involved in the education community, the more I loved it,” she said.
In 1990, Thomas took a new position as Kalispell’s coordinator for Safe and Drug-Free Schools, a federal initiative whose mission paralleled that of Flathead CARE. Thomas wrote grants and coordinated drug- and alcohol-use prevention programs for the 27 schools that were part of the local Safe and Drug-Free Schools consortium.
In 1992, she took on an additional role as director of Flathead CARE.
“I got to work with a lot of wonderful students and a lot of students who were struggling. That’s where my heart was,” Thomas said.
While she loved her work, it wasn’t always easy.
“There were days when I didn’t know where the next dime would come from ... and I was not sure how I was going to pay my staff,” she said. “But we would work hard and something would break, and we would be OK again.”
Then, in 2000, Thomas got a call from Callie Langohr, then-principal of Flathead High School, about an open position as director of the school’s career center.
“I actually was the one that kind of sought her out to give her the heads-up that we had a job opening,” Langohr said. “It was one of the better decisions I made in my life.”
Thomas said that the timing was perfect for considering a new position.
“I felt like [Flathead CARE] really had hit a stride,” she said. “Basically the community knew who we were and what we were doing; we didn’t have to re-explain what we were doing again. It felt like the right change at the right time.”
Thomas joined the staff at Flathead that fall, new to the role of career center director but with a wealth of experience and connections that could benefit students.
Thanks to CARE, she was familiar with schools and with nonprofits. She was well-connected at the college. She even had experience as a business owner: Thomas and her husband, Pat, had run a vacation rental business out of their home in the 1980s.
But Thomas said the opportunities she had to help students were born more from a serendipitous convergence of people and circumstances than from her own qualifications.
“I feel like all the right people and all the right commitment — the commitment on their part to want to do great things in our community — there was this incredible synergy and attitude of ‘we can do that,’” she said.
That synergy allowed the district to work with community members, Flathead Valley Community College and the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce to create a new curriculum structure they hoped would better prepare students for life after high school.
The new structure included six career clusters with classes that allow students to explore courses in specific areas of interest and see how those courses could lead to future careers. The career fields, which launched at both high schools when Glacier High opened in fall 2007, got students as freshmen to start considering their careers.
The partnerships continued beyond the initial planning; Thomas has helped ensure that Kalispell schools still are closely connected to local businesses and the community college.
“Her work, it has just been invaluable in terms of making those connections with the community and also with the community college,” Zorn said. “It’s helping as we try to serve our kids better and make sure that our schools are connected to our community better, and for kids to see options for them beyond high school.”
Thomas, who directs the career centers at both high schools, also played a significant role in ensuring more students would be able to pursue postsecondary options, Flathead Principal Peter Fusaro said.
“She has really made a difference with our kids as far as scholarships go,” he said. “She’s out there soliciting scholarships and helping kids get scholarships.”
Thomas prefers to credit the “quiet heroes” in the community — individuals and service groups who raised money for scholarships or left legacies for the school.
“The little bit of things I did is nothing in comparison to the response from good people and the community,” she said.
This year, graduating seniors at Kalispell schools earned about $2 million in scholarships, which Fusaro credited in large part to Thomas. To recognize her hard work, Flathead renamed its Principal’s Scholarship the DeAnn Thomas Making a Difference in School and Community Scholarship.
Thomas was also recognized at this year’s Glacier High senior awards ceremony; she was given the school’s Distinguished Service Award.
“She has worn multiple hats in the devoted service to others, and as a result we are a better school because of DeAnn Thomas’ faithful efforts,” Langohr, the school’s principal, said in prepared remarks at the ceremony.
After four years directing career centers at two schools, Thomas is ready for her next challenge. Her assistants, Cindy Allen and Billie Crawford, with help from the schools’ guidance counselors, will take over the career centers at Flathead and Glacier.
Thomas might help with some of the career centers’ major events, including the annual Freshman Career Fields Fair and the juniors’ annual visit to the community college, and she says she’ll do a little mentoring.
But she also hopes to play a more active role in her church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; to volunteer with the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce and the FVCC Foundation board; to spend time with her children and grandchildren; and to kayak and hike as much as possible.
Thomas says she feels satisfied when she looks back at her career.
“I wouldn’t change a minute of my life,” she said. “I wouldn’t change a minute, much less an hour or a day. I have been so blessed.”
Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or by email at email@example.com.