Coach Thomas was known by colleagues, friends and players as a man of integrity, character and honor. “Coach Thomas epitomized the values parents and the community demanded for their sons and daughters. Coach was honest, honorable and humble and he displayed those traits on and off the field as a man, a father figure and coach,” said former player and retired Superintendent of Thomas County Schools Larry Green.
Born Sept. 9, 1922, Coach Thomas, who passed away Oct. 20, 1994, is survived by his wife Elsie Thomas, and their two daughters.
Thomas lived a life on and off the field that inspired many Grady County young people to realize their potential and accomplish their goals. “He treated his athletes as if they were his own sons, and many went on to play at the college and pro levels,” said former player Lewis Gainey. Gainey, retired now, was the men’s track coach at the University of Georgia.
Coach Thomas graduated from Cairo High School in 1940 and was awarded football scholarships at Middle Georgia College in 1940 and the University of Georgia in 1942. After being red-shirted that year, Thomas joined the Army Air Force and returned to the University of Georgia in 1946 and graduated in 1947.
Thomas served as the head football coach, boy’s and girl’s basketball coach and baseball coach in Wrightsville, Ga., from 1947-51, and head football coach and athletic director in Baxley, Ga., in 1951-54. Coach Thomas returned home to Cairo and served as the head football coach and athletic director from 1954 to 1969 with a record of 117 wins, 38 losses and 11 ties. He was also girl’s basketball coach from 1956-1967. In addition, Thomas served as assistant principal at Cairo High School from 1956 until 1972.
Coach Thomas then served as head football coach in Fitzgerald and Lowndes County until 1976, returning to his hometown of Cairo in 1976 to coach at Washington Middle School. He became athletic director at Cairo High School in 1979 and served in that position until his retirement in 1983.
Recognized by his peers for his many accomplishments, Thomas was named Region 1 Class AA Coach of the Year in 1963, 1964 and 1967. Coach Thomas coached the South All-Star in 1957 and received the Distinguished Coaching Award by the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association in 1974 for 25 years of service, and the Distinguished Service Award by the same group for his contributions to the Georgia All-Star game the same year.
The city of Cairo proclaimed Nov. 9-15, 1969, as “Coach West Thomas Week” and he received the Distinguished Community Service Award from the city, as well. In 1970, a Georgia House of Representative resolution was presented to Thomas for his many years of successful coaching.
Thomas helped many student athletes earn college scholarships, and they, in turn, provided exceptional sports entertainment for thousands of sports fans around the nation. Fellow Grady County Sports Hall of Famers and former NFL greats Bill Stanfill and Bobby Walden are just two examples of players who learned the game under coach Thomas.
In 1958, the Cairo High School yearbook, the “Raconteur” was dedicated to coach Thomas, stating, “Coach Thomas exemplifies the promise of all young people who go out in the world to make good. He is a commanding personality who is dedicated to his position and fully capable of the authority vested in him.”
Phyllis Gainey, a retired Grady County educator, and a member of coach Thomas’ girls basketball team at CHS, said of her former coach, ” He instilled within his students the basic life skills of honesty, fairness and respect. Coach Thomas was a classic example that hard work could ultimately lead to success. Coach Thomas was instrumental in laying the foundation for the athletic tradition that Cairo High School has experienced.”
After his death in 1994, the football stadium at Cairo High School was named West Thomas Stadium in his honor and memory to forever recognize his many contributions and accomplishments in service to his profession and community.
The many young people coached by West Thomas who went on to successful careers in sports and the business world are a testament to the man who inspired so many. Coach Thomas was truly a coach’s coach and a man’s man, and, with pride, he always gave his best.