Reginald Thomas will walk the stage in Texas Tech’s centennial commencement ceremony this weekend, 50 years after receiving his degree.
Reginald Thomas always wondered what it would be like to walk in a commencement ceremony.
In fact, he wondered what it would be like to attend college.
One of nine siblings, Thomas knew he wanted a business degree. He also knew there was no way his parents could afford college tuition.
“I realized the way to achieve those dreams was enlisting in the military,” Thomas said. “If I served, my education would be paid.”
Thomas enlisted in the Air Force in 1963 and was eventually stationed at Reese Air Force Base and subsequently enrolled at Texas Tech University.
Four years later, Thomas was graduating with a business management degree (BBA) and was about to walk in the commencement ceremony he always dreamed about. His high school graduation in Louisiana opted for white tuxedos rather than a cap and gown, not exactly the classic look Thomas imagined.
“I just wanted to wear the regalia and be part of that tradition,” Thomas said.
Thomas finished his exams on a Monday and was scheduled to walk that upcoming weekend. But miles away, a war was looming on the horizon. Thomas was ordered to report to San Antonio for specialized training, effective immediately.
He departed the next day, leaving his unworn cap and gown behind.
The Path to an Education
Thomas grew up in mid-city New Orleans with his many siblings and two parents – a mother with a sixth-grade education and a father with an eighth-grade education. While his father made a decent living as a carpenter, he noticed others in the family were receiving exciting opportunities after attending college.
“My father decided that's what he wanted for all us kids,” Thomas said.
And his father got his way, with eight of his nine children earning college degrees.
Thomas knew that to attend college he'd need financial assistance, and at the time, many of his friends were enlisting.
“In my generation it was just assumed a young man would go into the military after high school,” Thomas recalls. “It's what was done, a part of life, if you will. All of us wanted to go and defend our country.”
Thomas and his friends went down to the local courthouse where the military signups were held. He knew he didn't want to go into the Coast Guard or Navy, not wanting to spend too much time on the water. But when it came to the other options, he didn't have a strong preference.
“It just so happened that the Air Force was the first office I saw, so I wandered in there,” he said. “I didn't give it much thought, but I suppose the idea appealed to me because I wouldn't be fighting in a bunker, and it seemed to include a lot of electrical training that could be useful later in life.”
As part of the enlisting process, Thomas took a test that which evaluated his strengths and propensities for different subject areas.
He passed in all four categories, allowing him to choose his service area.
“I decided to pursue the science and technical area,” Thomas said. “This allowed me to do electronic work on all the flight simulators, which sounded really interesting.”
With a plan in hand, Thomas left for basic training and then spent another few months in focused technical training for the work he would be doing. After training, Thomas was stationed at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock.
He arrived Christmas Day of 1963.
“That was one of the loneliest Christmases I've ever had,” Thomas recalls. “Back in that day, the military really didn't care if it was a holiday. They were very strict about when you reported.”
Most of the base was on leave, so Thomas spent the holiday quietly acquainting himself with the barracks. He also investigated higher education options in the area. He knew Texas Tech offered core courses on base and was eager to get started.
“I was excited to serve my country, but make no mistake, one of the driving reasons I enlisted was to get my degree,” Thomas said. “I was focused on making that happen.”
However, life had other plans in store.
Thomas' enlistment paralleled with the escalating tensions in Vietnam. By the end of 1963, the U.S. had sent 16,000 military personnel into Vietnam, and it was ramping up to send more.
Because of this, Thomas was pulled off electronic maintenance and retrained – his new job was instructing pilots in instrument flying.
“I still really wanted to take college courses, but there was just no time,” Thomas said. “I was working six, sometimes seven days a week.”
Over the next eight years, Thomas trained roughly 6,000 pilots.
“They came from all over the world,” Thomas said. “Some from nearby in West Texas, others from as far as Saudi Arabia or Norway. I was disappointed my college experience was taking a back seat at the time, but I was getting incredible experience and meeting people from across the world, so it still felt like I was part of something.”
The most memorable pilot Thomas trained was U.S. astronaut Story Musgrave.
“Musgrave was a scientist-astronaut trained by NASA,” Thomas recalls. “Part of his training took him out to our base. I worked with him in flight simulators and on different jets, getting him comfortable with the instruments.”
Musgrave would go on to serve on the crew of the Discovery, the Hubble repair mission and ultimately the Columbia before its final mission in 2003.
“It was surreal getting to train these people,” Thomas recalls. “I just wondered what the kids back in my neighborhood would say if they could see now. Kids from my block didn't grow up and do things like this. But that's what I loved about the Air Force. They didn't care who you were, what you looked like or where you came from. You either contributed to the mission or you didn't.”
With this committed mindset, Thomas did what he needed to do those eight years. Never going to Vietnam himself, he kept the emotion of what he was training the pilots to do aside.
“I was proud to contribute,” Thomas said. “We all tried to not linger on what might become of those pilots. You know, after they were gone, it was out of our hands. We had a job to do, and we tried to do it to the best of our ability.”
Finally, in 1970, the war was slowing down enough for Thomas to enroll in classes. He started first at South Plains College and quickly enrolled at Texas Tech after that.
He completed most of his core courses on base, but come 1973, he needed to be on campus to take the courses he needed to complete his BBA. The Air Force announced a scholarship program where airmen could be put on duty on campus.
Thomas applied and was accepted.
“I have the best memories of my time at Texas Tech,” he recalls. “I remember it being a very serious school; everyone was studying all the time. But that didn't stop them from having fun at football games or other campus events.”
Thomas remembers the Red Raiders beating the Longhorns during his senior year, the highlight of that year, according to him.
It also was during this time that he met his wife, Darlene. They were both students at Texas Tech. Thomas was happy. He had the college experience, great friends and a wonderful girlfriend who soon became his fiancée. As the end of 1974 drew near, he was finishing his degree plan.
“I was set to graduate that winter,” Thomas recalls. “Like I mentioned before, I had never gotten to be part of a real graduation ceremony, so I was really excited about walking the stage in my cap and gown.”
Thomas' family could come see him, his wife and her family would attend; it was all falling into place. A dream 31 years in the making was finally coming true.
“Then I got that phone call,” Thomas recalls, eyes on the floor.
“We had survived Vietnam, but there was growing concern about the Cold War. I knew what was going on, obviously, being in the military, but I hoped things would stay calm enough until I graduated.”
And they almost did.
“I got orders to report for training in missile units,” Thomas said. “I had to report three days before commencement. I was crushed.”
But as always, Thomas had a job to do. So, he and Darlene packed up and went to San Antonio.
The Cold War
A lot of airmen were being assigned to missile units during this time. With threats of nuclear weapons in other countries, the U.S. made it a priority to be prepared for nuclear war.
After a few months in San Antonio, Thomas was sent to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for a grueling six months of missile combat crew training. Finally, he was stationed in North Dakota to man the Strategic Missile Wing. Here, he served as a Deputy Missile Combat Crew Commander.
“In the military you're trained for many possible scenarios,” Thomas said. “Not all of them felt probable. But there was a time in the mid-1970s where nuclear war felt like a very real threat. All of us in that wing felt it was a real possibility. Or at least, that's the way we were trained to think.”
Thomas remembers this training to be incredibly intense. Being in a room with a nuclear missile required the highest intelligence and skill possible.
“To be able to go on alert in that room you had to have a 100% on the written test,” he said. “If you scored a 90% you were deemed unqualified and had to retake the training. Perfection was demanded. There was no room for error.”
Thomas attributes much of his success in this field to his Texas Tech education.
Being a commissioned officer in the Air Force certainly required a bachelor's degree, but to make 100% scores and man the country's nuclear weapons, you needed excellence.
“I found that during my time at Texas Tech,” Thomas said. “Through my degree program, I learned to manage people, solve advanced scientific and mathematical problems and push myself to the highest standard possible.”
By 1976, Thomas had served 13 years in the Air Force and started considering what was next. His dream had been to get a business degree and become a businessman. The military was his ticket there, but the successful career he ended up having in the Air Force caused him to stay longer than he ever intended.
“I was truly thankful for my experiences in the Air Force. It formed me into a leader and gave me so many technical skills. But by that time, I was in my mid-30s, and I was ready to take on the next challenge in life.”
Thomas left active duty in 1976 as a Second Lieutenant.
Ready to experience civilian life for the first time since he was an 18-year-old, Thomas began interviewing for jobs. After putting out applications to plenty of large corporations, Thomas was offered a job with Shell Oil Company.
Thomas spent the next 30 years at Shell.
“I finally got to work in business management; it was a dream come true,” Thomas said. “Most of my time with the company was spent as a labor relations manager, which is probably one of the toughest management jobs because you're dealing with thousands of employees and unions, trying to strike a fair balance for everyone.”
But Thomas thrived. He was no newcomer to high-stakes negotiations. With his background, he successfully navigated contracts, hiring, employee retention and incentive programs that led Shell to be one of the country's top employers at the time.
Thomas and Darlene spent most of those years in Houston – the site of many Shell operations. During this time, they had a daughter, Melanie.
“She's our only child,” Thomas said. “And while I've had an exciting career, she is the best thing I've ever done.”
The family resided in Houston for many years but as retirement started looming on the horizon, Thomas longed to return home to New Orleans. In 1995, Shell relocated Thomas and his family to where it all started.
Thomas and Darlene built their retirement home and in 2003 he retired from Shell.
“To be honest, I didn't feel ready to retire but everyone in my industry retires at 60,” Thomas said.
And so, the cake was ordered, the retirement party scheduled, and Thomas found new ways to fill his time. But something nagged at him: a sixth sense that his time with Shell just wasn't finished.
And in 2005, Thomas realized he had been right.
In August of that year, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city of New Orleans. The Category 5 storm became one the greatest natural disasters in U.S. history, resulting in more than 1,300 fatalities and $120 billion in damage.
“We were going to try to ride it out, but when we realized the magnitude of what was coming, Darlene, Melanie and I decided to evacuate,” Thomas said. “We literally caught the very last flight out of New Orleans before the airport closed.”
The three of them flew into Houston where they waited out the storm for six weeks. While the hurricane itself lasted a week, it took five more weeks before the city of New Orleans had power again.
In the first few days after they evacuated, Thomas recalls trying to locate family members.
“One of my sisters had been living in New Orleans, and no one knew what happened to her,” he said. “We didn't know if she got out or if she was stranded, or worse.”
Thomas was sick with worry.
“Being stuck in a hotel for more than a month not knowing if your family is dead or alive is one of the worst things I've ever experienced,” he said.
Eventually, his sister was found in Virginia. She had evacuated. So had Thomas' mother, and it was a good thing she did.
“When we came back after the storm, we realized we'd lost our family home,” Thomas said. “The one I grew up in, the one my mother still lived in after she lost my father.”
When Thomas went to assess the damage to the house, it was under 8 feet of water. His mother, immobile during those years, would have drowned in her bed.
But unfortunately, others in the city did not make it out. Because of the chaos, Thomas knew he needed to do something. He began to help neighbors and other families, but soon Shell reached out to him. They asked if he would come back for six months as a consultant to help with employment programs and labor agreements.
“Shell needed to start producing oil again, but so many employees and their families had been displaced,” Thomas said. “The company bought cars, hotel buildings, trailers and even set up schools. They did everything they could think of to help families get on their feet and make a living during that time.”
While the circumstances were grim, Thomas was glad to be working again, using his skills and passion to make a difference. What was going to be a six-month assignment turned into four years, but Thomas was happy to stay on.
“In some ways, it was the culmination of my career. Every skill I had picked up along the way was used in those months after Katrina,” he said.
Finally, in 2010 at the age of 67, Thomas retired for good.
The Bucket List
“I look at my life and marvel how it's come full circle,” Thomas said. “I've gotten everything I wanted, just in none of the ways I thought I'd get it.”
Thomas insists that life has a way of getting you where you want to go, you just have to be willing to roll with the punches.
Since his retirement in 2010, he and his family have traveled to more than 100 countries. He remains married to his wife of 57 years and has a grandson who takes up plenty of his attention. In fact, his life has been so fulfilling in recent years that he nearly forgot about one of the last items lingering on his bucket list.
“My daughter Melanie knows I didn't get to walk in my college commencement ceremony,” Thomas said. “And she knows how much I really wanted to, how it remains one of my very few regrets over the years.”
This past Christmas, Melanie took it upon herself to get her father a gift he'll never forget.
“I was sitting in the living room opening my gifts and when I unwrapped my gift from Melanie, it was a cap and gown,” Thomas said. “I recall thinking, ‘Well, what in the world do I need this for?'”
Then he opened an envelope with an airline ticket in it.
It was a flight to Lubbock in May 2023.
The pieces started clicking into place. He looked up at his daughter.
“I talked to the Alumni Association, and they've arranged for you to walk in the commencement ceremony this spring, dad,” Melanie said.
His eyes went back and forth from the cap and gown to his family.
“Is this really happening?” he asked.
“It sure is,” Melanie said.
Thomas will march in the 11 a.m. ceremony today (May 12). His family will be there cheering him on, as he checks off the final item on his bucket list.
“I was a student at Texas Tech when it celebrated its 50th anniversary, and now I'll get to walk during the centennial year,” Thomas said, his eyes glistening.
“I've waited for this day for so long. It's the perfect culmination to this rewarding, beautiful life I've gotten to live.”