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Frank B Thomas III

February 19, 2011|By JANET HEIM | janeth@herald-mail.com
  • Marion Thomas directs the family in this rare photo that shows them all together. From left, in the front, are Rosemarie Reynolds, Theresa Pittman, Elizabeth Woltemath, Marion Lane, Marion Thomas and Frank B Thomas III. In the back row, from left, are Charles Thomas, Ralph Thomas, Michael Thomas, Frank B Thomas IV and Paul Thomas.
Submitted photo

HANCOCK — As a student at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md., Frank B Thomas III would hitchhike home to Meyersdale, Pa., for school breaks. As the oldest of five sons, he was careful with money, wanting to ensure his younger brothers would be able to go to college, said Marion Thomas, Frank's wife of 55 years.

The first leg of the trip often ended at Hancock, and Frank would walk the long stretch of Main Street, duffle bag in tow, and at the other end would catch a ride to Cumberland or Grantsville. As a result, Frank knew the town of Hancock well.

Little did Frank realize that one day he would set up a family medical practice on that same street, and from there would serve the community for 48 years. Or that he and his wife would raise their nine children in a house they would build there.

Frank and Marion knew each other in passing growing up. It wasn't until they both attended a high school basketball game during Marion's junior year in high school, with Frank home on break from college, that the sparks flew.

"I smiled, he smiled back — that's how it started. I guess it was love at first sight," Marion said. After the game, they went to the drugstore for a chocolate rickey, a drink of chocolate and Coca-Cola.

Frank graduated from Jefferson Medical College in 1957, and that same year married Marion, who was a registered nurse. After a yearlong internship in Johnstown, Pa., the couple began considering where to set up a family medicine practice, including some in Pennsylvania.

They felt God wanted them in Hancock, a town Frank already knew well, after an opportunity in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., fell through.

"We decided this is where God was calling us," Marion said.

Frank touched so many lives in the Hancock community that it took two days of visitation time after his death to accommodate everyone. Marion said the weather was "snowy and blowy" and yet people in wheelchairs came out.

"Dr. Thomas is a big part of this town's history now. ... He had a religious faith like the Rock of Gibraltar that flowed into his medical practice and the way he treated people," said Marion Golden, a board member of the Hancock Historical Society and the Hancock Museum. Her husband was a patient of Dr. Thomas.

Marion Thomas was a nurse in the medical practice and said she learned a lot working with her husband. He worked such long days — usually from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., with no lunch or dinner breaks — that it took two nurses to keep up with him. Marion worked the second shift and said during flu season, they might not get home until after midnight.

"He touched people's lives in the office. It was such a blessing," Marion said.

Strong in their Catholic faith, they wanted a large family.

"Before we were married, we wanted 12 children, if God was willing," Marion said.

The couple had nine children, with the youngest, Elizabeth, born within months of the high school graduation of Marion, the oldest. They have 28 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

Daughter Marion Frances Lane, who married a doctor and is a nurse in North Carolina, said she jokes with prospective parents as she teaches sibling classes that her parents never asked for her permission before they had eight more children. She assures them that parents' love grows no matter how many children they have.

"They were quite a team working together," Marion Lane said.

Daughter Rosemarie Reynolds said when the kids asked for a dog or cat, they'd get another brother or sister.

Frank's last patient in 2006 was a house call, something his patient load didn't allow much time for. Frank had planned to "die with his boots on," but once he could no longer hear breath sounds well on the electronic stethoscope, he knew it was time.

"Patients came in feeling bad, but always felt better when they left. He had a way of putting people at ease. He was full of goodness," daughter Rosemarie said.

"He didn't have a time limit," oldest son Frank B Thomas IV said.

Frank treated his own children at the office, just like his patients, and treated them last. They didn't miss much school and knew they were pretty sick if he prescribed medicine the first time they complained of not feeling well.

"He loved what he did. He was a family doctor who ministered to the soul as well as the body," Marion said.

For more than a decade, the family lived in an apartment above his Hancock Medical Practice. The arrangement gave the children easy access to their father if they needed him.

Once the seventh baby was born, they built a brick house in 1969 on West Main Street, down the street from the office.

Church and faith were the bedrock of the Thomas family and their medical practice. The family belonged to St. Peter Catholic Church in Hancock, and Frank was on the corporate board for 26 years.

The Thomas' rarely missed Sunday Mass and after Frank retired, he and Marion attended Mass daily. When it snowed, even if the roads were impassable on Sunday, Frank insisted that the children who were old enough walk with him to church.

"My parents have tremendous faith. They have lived what their faith says. They certainly have been a torch for us and others as well," Marion Lane said.

The Thomas children learned a solid work ethic from their parents, with all of them working in the practice — the girls in the office and the boys doing outside work. Three of the Thomas' nine children chose careers in the medical field, including Marion Lane, a nurse; Rosemarie, who works as a practice manager in Berkeley Springs, after having managed the family practice until her father retired; and Ralph, who is an anesthesiologist.

They all worked in the vegetable garden on their 2-acre property. Once the Thomases no longer planted a garden, homegrown produce would appear on the family's front porch from anonymous donors.

Despite Frank's long hours, his family did not consider him a workaholic.

"He saw this as his duty to God," Marion said.

Family meals were served buffet style, and grace was said after the last person was seated, Marion Lane said. Her father tried to join the family for meals on weekends.

There would be times when the phone would ring as he was sitting down to eat and he would leave to tend to a patient.

"I guess I would call it selflessness," Marion Lane said.

Frank made time for his children, often taking them fishing or having them garden with him. Youngest child Elizabeth Woltemath of Virginia Beach, Va., remembers sitting on the back porch with her father when she was little and him telling her the names of the stars.

"Somehow, our parents managed to make us feel like we were each the favorite. Dad was away from home a lot, but we knew he loved us," Rosemarie said.

Family vacations were planned around Frank's medical conferences and meetings, which usually meant beach time for the family, while Frank attended meetings. He would then join the family for walks on the beach or to teach the kids to body surf.

Franks' love for learning and his memory helped him as a doctor. Rosemarie said her father knew his patients by name, knew who they were related to and knew what medical conditions ran in their family.

"The man didn't forget anything, ever. As children, we didn't like that. As adults, it was a good thing," Rosemarie said.

"It went from a bain to a blessing," said son Frank.

Frank stayed fit by going to the fitness center and walking on the canal, having survived prostate cancer and a heart bypass in 1984. His illness and death came suddenly and Marion said her husband was blessed with the "grace of a happy death."

What began as a cough developed into pneumonia, for which Frank had to be hospitalized. Over about three weeks, he was put on a respirator. When it became clear he would not recover, his four brothers and their wives, many of his children and grandchildren, his priest and a nephew who is a priest, gathered around Frank's bedside to pray for him and say goodbye.

"It was a loving time for the family. There were just so many blessings," Marion said.

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Editor's note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs "A Life Remembered." Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today's "A Life Remembered" is about Dr. Frank B Thomas III, who died Jan. 26, 2011, at the age of 79. His obituary was published in the Jan. 28, 2011, edition of The Herald-Mail.

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