United States Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. certainly knows how to look back and give homage to his past. From his baseball playing days in his hometown of Queens, New York, Thomas now heads one of the largest US missions in the world.
On a balmy summer morning in Manila, Thomas sat in his posh receiving room at the US Embassy along Roxas Boulevard, his back turned away from the view of lush greeneries in the sprawling compound. He was wearing a lavender long-sleeved collared shirt, a purple tie and matching socks. His fashion is endearing and adorable, especially since he is the ambassador of the global superpower.
Thomas talked about his childhood in New York with a whimsical smile and contagious laughter that echoed around the stately room. While most men—or women—in high positions of power would be wary about sharing stories about their private lives, Thomas was refreshingly open, and happy to share his “great childhood” with The Manila Times.
“We weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but you [still]thought you were.
You thought you were like anybody else because you didn’t lack for anything. It was great. It was a great childhood. It really was,” he happily recalled.
His New York
Thomas was raised in a middle-class family. His mother—who attended college in South Carolina and earned a master’s degree at the New York University—was a schoolteacher who later became a social worker. His father, like many fathers during the 1960s, was a military man who later set up his own , as well as several apartment buildings.
“Like everybody else,” Thomas said his family had two cars and one television set when he was growing up. “We used to always argue whose daddy had the best car. We watched the television as a family. You watch the same programs. That’s what everybody did. You didn’t think of anything [you’re missing].”
Growing up in the 1960s, Thomas described his close-knit neighborhood as a drive with 10
houses on each side. And everyone on this lane knew everyone by his or her first name.
“It was perfect,” he said, reminiscing the times he spent playing football or baseball or Dodgeball with his best friends, all of whom happened to be black.
“In my neighborhood, everybody—and I mean everybody—is a migrant from the south—South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. We were all in cub scouts, and the boys wash cars every Saturday and keep those cars clean. It was great fun and we were close,” Thomas said.
In fact, the ambassador said that when he went home in January this year, he even knocked on his neighbors’ doors and sat down with them to catch up. He happily related that his fifth grade teacher is still alive and well, and that hardly anything has changed. To this day, children still play on the street while their mothers prepare dinner.
“You know, people think of New York as apartment buildings and concrete jungles, but not where I live,” the envoy said, adding that the public library, a couple of blocks away from where he lives, was where he learned the importance of reading and education.
The school boy
In elementary school, Thomas played the clarinet in the school’s award-winning band.
When he went on to secondary education, the envoy decided to enroll in engineering high school, which produced Nobel Peace Prize winners and science awardees, since he thought at the time he wanted to attend West Point in college. He was good in both science and math like his father but when he reached college, he took on a different path.
“I was a mediocre student because engineering was not for me,” he laughed. “I learned that very quickly.”
He therefore chose a small but distinguished academic institution in Massachusetts in New England for university, the College of the Holy Cross, where he studied Political Science.
He thought he wanted to be a lawyer but in the end, Thomas realized he wanted to be an urban planner to help the growth and development of communities across the United States.
Thomas declared that his well-spent years at the College of the Holy Cross, an institution run by Jesuit priests, taught him “how to think” and “to question authority.”
“The Jesuits teach you how to think, question authority, and always stay on the right path that you believe in. You see God in everything in a values-based life but question authority.
And we did. So, it was the best experience of my life, my four years in Holy Cross,” he said.
But besides honing his academic skills, Thomas also remembered to be socially active by going out with friends and learning how to ask girls out.
“We’re very afraid [of asking girls out]. ‘What’s your name?’,” he mimicked his younger self in a sing-song voice. “’What’s your major?’ Now, we go, ‘What’s your sign?’ And then after that, we didn’t know what to say. We freeze up. It was a more innocent time.”
He laughingly confessed that he and his friends often just prayed for luck a girl would eventually go to the dance with them. Years later, he learned that a classmate was just waiting for the boys to ask her out.
“She was like, ‘What? You guys wanted to invite me? Nobody did,’” he chortled, chalking it up to life in a conservative Catholic school.
He also engaged in sports, specifically the track and field team. After track practice, he remembered having to go and eat dinner in the kitchen where he also worked.
“I had an easy but terrible job. Everybody would serve people, [but]all I have to do is to take the slop [leftover food]down to the man waiting who was a pig farmer. And I can’t tell you how bad I smelled after putting it up on the pig truck.”
For four days a week, Thomas had to work in the kitchen to help pay for college. Although his parents paid for his tuition, the young Thomas needed spending money for his other needs.
Every school break, the envoy would make a collect phone call 200 miles away to New York, so his father can send him money for the bus back home. He would then fill a large duffel bag with his dirty clothes, hop on the bus, and his mother would wash and iron every single item before he went back to Holy Cross.
Still, his mother—who incidentally is now 88 years old and still drives her own car—didn’t let her him get away with household chores. She taught Thomas how to iron his clothes and how to cook his own food.
“It helped me a lot when I was an adult. I know how to iron my shirts. I wanted to be independent [by]doing my own [chores]. There are no maids in the States. You have to do your own work, [and]that’s very beneficial.”
Call to service
Thomas didn’t go straight to work after college. He took up his master’s degree in urban planning at the Columbia University in New York. After Columbia, he worked in the Manhattan office of the South Bronx Development Organization for three years.
He was part of the team that developed the South Bronx community, one of the worst ghettos in America, where Secretary Colin Powell is from. Thomas helped build homes and learned a lot about people and their needs and aspirations.
Funding problems caused the South Bronx Development Organization to close down, leaving Thomas almost without a job. It was his boss, however, who encouraged him to take up the Foreign Service exam, which he passed in a cinch.
“He encouraged me to join the Foreign Service [even if]I [had]never traveled overseas. I [had]never left America, so I owe him a lot. I consider myself very lucky and fortunate.”
His first posting in the Foreign Service was as vice consul for Non-Immigrant Visas in Peru’s capital city of Lima. There, Thomas learned how to speak Spanish. He remembered not knowing anything about Peru, which was a “total eye-opener” for someone who had stayed in the United States all his life.
After this posting, he was sent to Northern Nigeria in Africa, his first time on the continent. He lived in a Muslim community in Nigeria, and learned about Islam and the African culture.
“It’s all been a new experience for me. It’s always been great.”
By the time he was in his early 40s, Thomas received his first posting as ambassador to Bangladesh from 2003 to 2005. It was cut short when he was called back to the home office to serve as executive secretary at the State Department for Secretary Condoleezza Rice. He concurrently served as head of personnel of the State Department.
Thomas’ only image of the Philippines before his current posting was during Easter weekend in 2008 when visited the capital in an official capacity.
“It was not a good weekend to come during Easter weekend,” he realized. Not much was going on [but]it turned out to be beneficial.”
He remembered meeting with officials of the Dell Center, a business process outsourcing company, to learn about new techniques in developing personnel. He also managed to see parts of Malate and dined a few Spanish restaurants.
In 2010, Thomas found himself headed back to Manila, this time, with his portfolio and credentials, which he then presented to outgoing President Gloria Arroyo.
“I was praying and hoping I’d be up for the job, not knowing if I would be. The Philippines [then]was going through elections. I was trying to figure out how Philippine democracy works. Philippine elections are very different from American elections,” he rightly said.
“I felt like I was drowning the first few weeks. I had to tread the water, learn about the many different parties and candidates and things like that. You can read a lot before you come here, which I have. But until you’re here . . . I was kind of blown away.”
Thomas is currently rounding up his diplomatic tour of the Philippines, preparing to leave sometime in the next few months. As a long-time ally of the United States, the ambassador said his country “doesn’t have just one relationship with the Philippines.”
“We have 27 agencies in this embassy. They are all critical and important. Every one of our agencies has enhanced our relationship and I can’t pick one over the other.”
At this point, Cynthia Cook, the embassy’s deputy press attaché, urged the ambassador to talk about the fundraisers he successfully conducted through his private contacts.
Although the United States invests huge resources in developing its political, economic and trade, military and social links with the Philippines, Thomas admitted the government’s funding is not enough to support the multitude of programs the embassy is currently pursuing.
By leveraging his private contacts and friends from different sectors and industries, the envoy managed to raise funds for baseball kids in Smokey Mountain, abused women and anti-human trafficking campaigns.
“There is a lot going on, and I hesitate to choose but our job is to work with these elected government [officials]and the Filipino people. [It is] necessary to assist them and to partner with them and that’s what we are trying to do.”
Indeed, Thomas has gone a long way from washing his dad’s car in a small close-knit neighborhood in Queens. From shyly asking girls out in Holy Cross, he is now a crucial force in strengthening the United States’ ties with one of its most important allies in the Asia Pacific.
Powerful as his post may be, Thomas remains, all heart, just as he was as a small town boy.
The most influential people in his life, he said, are not the high-ranking officials he has closely worked with throughout his career. Neither have his views have never been altered by the best political minds, Nobel Peace Prize winners or political geniuses. Instead, he has remained true to his roots, and credits his parents as the most inspiring people in his life to this very day.
“My parents came from very humble [roots], from extreme poverty. And because of their parents, they are able to go to college. They always emphasize education and they gave us everything they could. They didn’t buy a lot of material things, but they always saved for our education.
“They always encouraged us to do whatever we could do. No barriers. So whatever we
wanted to do, they supported, and without them I would be nowhere. My parents used their life savings for our education.”
In 2001, when Thomas landed a job as a White House staffer, his father, who passed away in 2004, passed a note to his mother in Church saying, “He got the job!”
“He was pretty proud. I miss my father, but I owe him everything as I am sure you do with your own parents.”