By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Dr. Mary Kemp Thomas was a woman of many words, her children said: a woman of faith and family, a woman who always wanted to reach out and help others. Almost a year after her death at age 89 in a car accident, they remember that about “Dr. Mary K” most of all.
“She always wanted to make sure that she could pull everybody with her. She pulled, and she would ask you, come on, because we have somewhere to go,” her son Vernice Thomas said.
Sandhills Community College honored Thomas – the school’s very first graduate – and her remarkable life last week with the unveiling of a memorial sculpture on the Sandhills Hoke Center campus in Raeford.
Most of her family didn’t know what the memorial would look like until the velvet drape came away, revealing a tribute that matched exactly the impact she had on others: a hand reaching down to grasp another, and pull it up.
“You don’t know what this means to us for this to happen today,” Thomas’ daughter Jane T. Smith said in remarks.
“I am just so, so grateful that it happened today, so close to Mother’s Day. What a Mother’s Day gift.”
Dr. Thomas was born the daughter of Judge Duncan Kemp and Marzetta Cooley Kemp. She married at a young age and returned to school later in life to earn her high school equivalency certificate, becoming the first Sandhills Community College graduate on April 30, 1965. She was also the first person to receive an associate’s degree from the college.
Thomas continued pursuing higher education. She earned a degree in elementary education from Pembroke State University, today known as UNCP, and eventually earned her doctoral degree.
She taught school in Hoke County for decades, and retired after 28 years of service with Hoke County Schools. She also served as pastor of Wingate Community Church of God, and as the Hoke County Senior Tarheel Legislative Delegate of the Lumber River Council of Governments, among her many other community contributions.
Vernice Thomas spoke of the sacrifices and hard work his parents put in to make it possible. His mother worked cleaning houses and at a poultry plant, and wanted a better life for their family, he said.
“Mom knew that she could not be in that situation all of her life. She was a leader,” Thomas said. His father drove her back and forth to classes so she could earn her degree, he recalled.
Sandhills Hoke Center Associate Vice President Dr. Twana McKnight described Thomas as a woman who “forged a path that very few have walked.” She was an exceptionally accomplished person, and demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to improving the lives of others, McKnight said.
“She is regarded as an inspiration to countless Hoke County citizens because of her outstanding contributions to the community as an educator, as a community leader, as well as a pastor,” she said.
“I think we all agree that these were some amazing achievements. I believe that we will also agree that these achievements were more amazing that all of them were done by one person in one life.”
Family member Ebony Peterkin, better known to many as world-renowned percussionist and performing artist Ladysticks, spurred the special dedication through her desire to honor Thomas. She spoke with Sandhills Community College President Dr. John Dempsey and McKnight, and helped organize the event. She also was a guiding hand in helping decide what the sculpture should look like.
“What you see today is what we were able to come up with that we feel like exemplifies who Dr. Thomas is as a person, what she meant to her family members, her friends as well as what she meant to Hoke County,” McKnight said.
The sculpture they decided on was created by Gary Lee Price Studios of Springhill, Utah, and is called “Communion.” The sculpture is meant to invite people to believe, uplift and inspire others, according to its creator.
Ladysticks said she was inspired by Dr. Thomas to take risks and dare to do things audaciously.
“Dr. Mary K was one of the most phenomenal women I know. As I toured different countries with different major companies, people would wonder how I had the audacity to come out to places like Singapore, be the first brown drummer to be in a Disney show, where I had the strength to negotiate my contract and walk in there boldly without a band…I said, you don’t understand the tree of the awesome women and strength that I came from,” Ladysticks said. “I grew up being prayed for, watching people be prayed for, praying in the spirit by people like Dr. Mary K. Thomas. I saw real superheroes in person, not the ones on TV. You can’t help but understand you’re destined to be fearless.”
Other guest speakers for the dedication ceremony included College President Dempsey, Hoke Board of Education and Sandhills Board of Trustees member Irish Pickett, George W. Little of the Board of Trustees and Kathy McPherson of the Foundation Board. Josiah Justeen, a student at Ladysticks’ Music Performing Arts Studio, and the Wingate Community Church of God FBJC Choir provided musical selections.