The former left tackle plans a brighter future for Corydon when not riding an ambulance
by Jason W. Selby
Above Mike Thomas’ office desk at the Wayne County Hospital hangs a quote. It is not from Henry Ford, Ralph Waldo Emerson or a president. It is from Mike Thomas:
“The more questions you ask, the more you find out things are not what you think they are.”
Thomas was recently named Young Settler of the Year, an honor he undeniably deserves. He will be bestowed this title at the 132nd Old Settlers in Corydon.
“I was very surprised to be honored in that way,” Thomas said.
Thomas is a 1991 graduate of Wayne Community High School; he has been a paramedic since that time. He has two children, Michaela, 16, and Nick, 12.
In July of 2011, Thomas returned after almost 12 years away from the Corydon area. His roots run deep. His grandparents grew up in Wayne County, and he lives near his childhood home, his parents’ farm. He still cares about the welfare of the town and the people who live there. There is no other way to explain the hours he spends volunteering in various capacities. It is also why he still gets in an ambulance as much as possible.
“I’m excited to be back home,” Thomas said, “and being able to help out the community that I love. Growing up here was a great experience. I had great classmates and teachers. I played football, wrestled and participated in track in shot put and discus.
“It felt like, back then, we were one big happy family. All of the families traveled to the football games. Everybody was there for you on Friday night. At home games, cars were parked all the way around the football field. It seemed like all the seats were filled up.”
While in high school, Thomas played center on the Falcons’ offensive line for Wayne football teams that went to state three consecutive years.
“I started out with Paul Epperly, who was a great coach, and ended with Stan Rupe my senior year. Dave Daughton was my wrestling coach and my football coach. I coached a little wrestling after high school with Coach Daughton. I just loved being around those guys. They wanted the best for you. Just having that Falcon spirit.
“I moved away for a while to further my career, but I’m just glad I had a chance to come back and join the leadership team to help grow the hospital, and be able participate in community events.”
Thomas left his home for the sake of the medical field, living in Lakeville, Minn., where he was administrator for a group of physicians out of Saint Paul.
Currently, he is in the process of earning his business administration degree from National American University.
While in Minnesota, the semi-professional Minnesota K-9s recruited Thomas to play in the Mid-America Football League during 14-game summers. Playing six seasons at left tackle and backup center, Thomas helped the K-9s win the 2000 championship. For his last three years, Thomas owned the team along with two other teammates.
“It was fun,” Thomas said. “I was a three-time All-American. The coaches from the semi-pro teams choose 50 players out of our division, and then they had Division I college teams that chose 50 players, and then we split them up. We’d play a game against each other at the Metrodome, on Astroturf where the Vikings used to play. Out of the same group, there were several players that went to the NFL. It was probably one of my sports highlights.”
Thomas was also able to bring the K-9s down to play a semi-professional team out of Missouri at old Saling Field in Corydon. Current Falcons assistant football coach Mike Mattly and local resident Larry Samuels lined up against Thomas for the Missouri team.
Besides working for the hospital, Thomas’ priorities are now focused upon improving his home community. He is president of the Corydon & Allerton Chamber of Commerce, where he has spearheaded the Corydon Lighting Project; a member of the Lion’s Club; and a board member on the ISU Extension Council.
“I would love to see Corydon grow,” Thomas said. “Even when I was a kid, Corydon was larger than it currently is and had more businesses. I’d love to see more businesses come into town, for our population to grow and our schools to grow and get back to a more active community.
“The first step is to promote businesses, schools and the area so people want to come here, shop here and spend their money here. The more attractions we have, that’s what brings in people—as well as having great schools like we do.
“I think the sports complex was an amazing project, because that promotes families to want to come to our school here. The more families you bring in, the more people come to shop in our community—that brings in a bigger tax base to be able to improve our roads and systems. You’ve got to have something to attract young adults, and everyone for that matter, to our community and to keep them here, and to keep them active in our community.
“The pool would be another great project that happened a few years ago, bringing in the new [Prairie Trails Family Aquatic Center]. Having the Prairie Trails Fitness Center helps attract people to the community. [Prairie Trails Museum] is another wonderful attraction. The community events, Summer on the Square, our county fair is always a great event. Old Settlers itself always brings back a lot of people—not only for class reunions, but for the pride of having our town event.
“We have a lot of different businesses that have changed—new ones that have come in, old ones that have gone away. I miss some of those different businesses that were here.
“It seemed like, at least when I was a kid, we had more town spirit. It felt like people were more invested in their community. I’d love to see that get back to where it used to be. We’ve seen some great things happen, like [Saling Athletic Complex], the aquatic center, and East Penn is growing. The hospital is growing. From when I was a kid, the hospital is probably four times the size that it was. Being able to provide additional services, though you might not see it in building size.”
Growing up, Thomas’ family farmed cattle and sheep, put up hay and cash rented row crops. His parents are Steve and Tracy Thomas. Steve is now retired from the Hy-Vee Wholesale. Tracy worked as a florist at Keller’s Flower Shop for 35 years. He has an older brother, Matt.
Sacrificing himself for others is in Thomas’ blood. This is indicative from his service to the community, his devotion to patients in times of distress, and even to his role as a left tackle protecting his quarterback’s blindside.
Thomas could point to more than one source for his love of the medical field and his passion for serving others. During World War II, his late grandfather, Wayne County native Mark Ingram, was an Army medic in the 45th infantry division, serving from 1942 to 1945 in the European theater. Ingram received three Bronze Stars for acts of valor.
“Something interested me about that—[though] he didn’t talk much about it,” Thomas said. “I had a three-wheeler accident when I was a kid. I jumped a terrace going as fast as I could and [flipped] it over. My mom found me, got my grandpa, and he’s the one that took care of me to get to the hospital. I was bleeding from my head, had been knocked out, the three-wheeler was still on top of me.
“Just watching him—I don’t think I realized what he had done in the Army before that. After that, he spoke a little about it.”
Thomas’ other grandfather, Arthur Thomas, served in World War II as well. As a member of the Coast Guard, he patrolled the shores of North Carolina on horseback before the Navy absorbed the Coast Guard for the war effort. Later, he was part of the invasion at New Guinea.
Arthur owned a grocery store in Corydon, in the building where LeCompte Memorial Library is now housed.
Thomas’ father was on the frontlines in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, where he earned a Bronze Star for volunteering to return to a battle to rescue casualties.
“My whole family has been a huge influence on me,” Thomas said.
“My junior year of high school, we had work study. Carla Beavers was in charge of that. I was interested in working with the ambulance service out here. [Beavers] helped me talk with the ambulance director at the time, which was Ben Becker. They were more than happy to have me come out and run calls with them. That was my real first exposure.
“The other person that got me interested was actually Daren Relph, our CEO. At the time, he had graduated and went to EMS school. When I was working at the pool as a lifeguard, they had come down to do some training for us. Seeing the gear and the uniform, it just interested me more in pursuing that kind of career.
“When I came out here to do work study, I just fell in love—I wanted to take care of people and help them out in their worst times.
“It’s been my passion for the last 25 years, and I continue to do that. I pick up shifts here [at WCH] once in a while in EMS, and I also pickup up shifts in Ottumwa at a regional hospital with their ambulance service.
“I’m a paramedic still; I want to be able to keep my skills up and take care of people.
“I won’t lie—there’s some tough calls you go on, especially working in a community you grew up in. You’re taking care of people you know. You cry with them when they have some tragedies, and you also laugh with them when you can take care of them, help them out and see them walk out of the hospital.
“In my mind, it’s a very fulfilling career. I love healthcare. I had a few goals when I started out: I wanted to be an ambulance director, which I was here back in 1998 and 1999. I knew I wanted to be an administrator, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to be in the EMS forever—there gets to be the point where you have trouble lifting and going out on calls at three in the morning. I wanted to be able to help people that were helping people directly on the front lines.”
Thomas compared himself to a retired athlete who wants to be a coach or a general manager. He is currently associate administrator at WCH.
“I want to fly at some point in time,” the former offensive lineman said. “The biggest hurdle has been my size. They have a weight limit in the helicopter, but one day I will achieve that goal. I want to take care of those critical patients—I’ve always wanted to take care of the worst of the worst patients.
“It’s not about how much money you make all the time. It’s about being enthusiastic about the job. I’ve never had a day where I’ve dreaded coming to work here. In my mind, you have to love your job. If you don’t, it’s not worth it, no matter how much money you make.”
Thomas has another quote above his desk that he coined himself:
“Hire people for their passion, enthusiasm, and drive, because you can teach their ability.”
This saying could apply as well to volunteerism in Corydon. If people are enthusiastic and willing to help move Wayne County forward, they will eventually learn what it will take to make that happen. Mentors like Mike Thomas will always be there to lead the way.
“I’d love to see Corydon have new businesses come in and current businesses grow,” Thomas said, “and have more restaurants and places to shop, places to do fun things. I don’t want to drive in town at 10 o’clock at night and nothing is going on. I love the small town, I don’t want a big metropolis, but it’d be nice to have some amenities.
“I’d love to see East Penn, Shivvers and the hospital get bigger—have a bigger regional medical presence and be able to provide care for people so they don’t have to drive 75 miles. We want to be that place. I think in my lifetime I can see all of that happening. I would like to see new streets and infrastructure, but it’s going to take the other businesses coming in.
“We can grow Corydon and Wayne County again. It’s a wonderful place to live. If we continue to work together, and people see that, we can make it an even better place.”
The former left tackle plans a brighter future for Corydon when not riding an ambulance