Mr. T: A son’s tribute to his father, a teacher who struck the right note

Greg Thomas, right, directed Albemarle High's jazz band, as well as every other band at AHS. 
Gloria Londono Greg Thomas, right, directed Albemarle High’s jazz band, as well as every other band at AHS. Gloria Londono

By Price Thomas

Ask around Charlottesville and everyone (I mean it, everyone) knows Greg Thomas some way, somehow. They’ve had him as a teacher, their mom had him as a teacher (he’s been at this a while), or they’ve seen him perform with Big Ray and the Kool Kats and various other groups over the years. He was their YMCA basketball coach, their wedding officiant, or they saw his audition tape for Ghostbusters as a stunt double for Egon in the mid ’80s.

Suffice to say, he’s made an impression.

I’ve heard stories of his early days at Walton Middle School, a young educator passionate about teaching and engaging with students through music, and equally enthusiastic about skipping staff meetings.

I’ve heard about the renaissance of the Albemarle High School band program. Sure, they played harder music and continue to be the gold standard around the state and nationally. But the notes on the page pale in comparison to one of the most remarkable cultural phenomenons to take place at a public school: Band became cool.

Greg Thomas, center top, who retired this year after more than three decades in Albemarle public schools, made band cool for thousands of students. Ash Daniel

Where else do you find a band room full of athletes, “cool kids,” anime enthusiasts, and drama kids? And no, they don’t all share a love for the Dorian mode.

They’re together because Mr. T, as he’s affectionately called, created a place where young people, at arguably the most uncertain and tumultuous time of their lives socially, feel like they belong regardless of race, gender, fashion preferences, or perceived social standing.

He gave them a vocabulary to safely explore what they are yet unable to fully vocalize. He ventured beyond his remit as an educator year after year to meet students where they were, invest in them, and make them feel valued, from the piano prodigy to the kid who just needed an elective.

I sat in Mr. T’s class every day of high school (except for the two I was suspended—shout-out to Mrs. Stokes) as a bassoonist in the wind ensemble. Third row, far right, right next to his successor, Andrew LaPrade.

I watched Mr. T demonstrate articulation techniques by throwing food at a chalkboard (an egg makes one distinct sound upon impact, a ham sandwich makes multiple), and celebrate every student’s birthday with a “gift”—anything from a dented soccer medal to a sausage link to a used oboe reed—from the birthday box.

But I also know him as dad.

And there’s something that his tens of thousands of students can’t attest to. It doesn’t show up in Golden Apple Awards or superior district band ratings.

It’s the relationship between a young man and his father.

I spent the early years of my life wanting to be exactly like my dad. As many of us with great fathers can attest, they’re our models, our mentors, and you want to do everything just like them. I looked up to him, and I still do. Because he’s significantly taller than me.

As you move into those brace-faced, hormonally-unpredictable, rebellious teenage years, you’re supposed to recede, forge your own path, and become, you know, “your own man.”

I was supposed to get tired of being known as “Greg Thomas’ son.”

But I never did. And it’s a mantle that, 31 years and counting, I carry with unbridled pride.

I do so because Greg Thomas is the man who taught me that you don’t fail—you win or you learn. He showed me how to be an exceptional father, husband, and teacher, without sacrificing a shred of happiness. He taught me the power of being humble and the strength of conviction. He taught me that mashed potatoes look suspiciously like vanilla ice cream when put into a waffle cone, and that your socks technically can’t be on the wrong feet.

Now that he’s retired after 34 years of teaching, countless people have thanked me for “sharing my father” with them. Kids who have never so much as picked up an instrument have told me that he’s been a mentor to them and that it must be “so cool” to be his kid.

Spoiler alert. It is.

That’s the legacy of Greg Thomas.

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