Barbara L. Thomas, 92, passed away on July 27, 2019, in Kalispell. Barbara was born in 1927 high in the Cascade Mountains, where her father was a forest ranger, beginning her life deeply connected to the Earth. Her family were non-tribal Eastern Cherokee, having escaped the Trail of Tears to settle in Southern Illinois. The recipient of a generous Langham Scholarship, Barbara was the first in her family to attend college. She met Ralph I. Thomas at the University of Puget Sound, married and embraced by his family, they were together for 51 years until his death in 2000.
Barbara embodied inclusivity, her deep friendships included individuals from all walks of life. Barbara, Ralph and their four young children served as host to strangers visiting from abroad, including China, Russia, Germany and Australia. She straddled cultures, attributing her spiritual roots to her Native American history, belonging to a progressive Christian denomination for decades and in her later years discovering the meditative voice of a Buddhist sangha. While living in the Seattle area, Barbara served on the World Council of Churches, her collaborative writings now held in the Vatican. By her life, Barbara taught her family to love all.
As Barbara aged, she inspired those who knew her with her full engagement in life. Barbara swam the two miles across chilly Lake Washington for the first time at 65 years of age. Having been told as a child she could not sing, she took a singing course at the University of Washington in her 70s, performing “The Messiah” with a community group after graduation. Barbara also came to poetry late in life, with a passion. She published her first book, “Lilacs Wilting on Nancy’s Bonnet: A Cherokee Narrative” after years of research into family history, including a visit to ancestral sites and reconnection with family in Illinois. This first book was nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and Bumbershoot Literary Award in 2001. A later book, “Quiescence” brought her international recognition, receiving honorable mention in the Poetry section at both the London and Paris Book Fairs.
After the death of her husband, Barbara moved to Kalispell in 2003 to be with her daughter and grandchildren. Settling in the Rocky Mountains resonated with Barbara’s North Cascade roots and brought her much joy. With aging, Barbara inspired many with her increasingly spunky, full living: in her 90s, as she swam her half mile of laps at The Summit, she would state her age and refuse to share her lane. Barbara published her last of 10 books of poetry in her 92nd year. Living in Kalispell, she felt held by nature and the love of family, friends and neighbors.
Following a rapid decline over three to four months from ALS, Barbara entered hospice and after just a few precious, glorious days with friends and family, laughing, smiling, and enjoying stories and readings to her from books of her own poetry, she passed away gracefully on July 27, 2019.
Barbara’s family wishes to express deep gratitude to neighbors, friends, her physician of 16 years, Dr. Chris Gill, and the staff of Wel-Life for the love and care surrounding her.
Barbara is survived by her children, Terri Fivash of Ventura, California, Kevin Thomas of Wayne, Pennsylvania, Laura Csaplar of Kalispell, and Carol Cunningham of Los Angeles; and her grandchildren, Eric and Greg Fivash and Amalia and Rózsa Csaplar. Barbara’s exuberance for life brought joy to many; she was given the nickname of “Songbird in Sunshine” by her daughter.
A celebration of Barbara’s life will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17, at Shining Mountain Spiritual Center in Kalispell.
Memorial donations in Barbara’s name suggested to the American Indian College Fund.
Friends are encouraged to visit the website www.buffalohillfh.com to leave notes of condolence for the family. Buffalo Hill Funeral Home and Crematory is caring for the family.