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    Harry K. Thomas Jr. '78, the 11th Ambassador to Bangladesh, and Holy Cross Alumni at the State Dept. receptionAlumnus Carries Spirit of Holy Cross to Bangladesh

By Michelle M. Murphy

This summer, Harry K. Thomas Jr. ’78, was named the 11th United tates Ambassador to Bangladesh—not surprising news to those who know him well.

“My first reaction was: ‘What took so long?’” chuckles his classmate and friend, Michael T. Holmes, a vice president with Right Management Consultants in New York.

“This didn’t come out of the blue. He has advanced very thoroughly and effectively through his career at the State Department,” adds Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., president emeritus of the College, who was among the several dozen college friends in attendance at Thomas’ installation in Washington, D.C. “He’s a very bright fellow, and an outgoing, jovial person who naturally attracts people. The officials there spoke in very laudatory terms of Harry’s history of public service in the government.”

Thomas, a political science major, earned his master’s degree in urban planning at Columbia University. He joined the Foreign Service in 1984, the same year he married Ericka O. Smith, a jazz singer. Thomas’ career has taken him around the world—to postings in India, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Peru—and into the inner sanctum of the White House, where, from 2001-02 he served as the National Security Council’s director for South Asia under Condoleezza Rice.

“It was always a thrill to go and brief the president, and Dr. Rice always allowed us to brief him one-on-one,” says Thomas, whose wife and 15-year-old daughter, Casey, have joined him in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Although he is fluent in Spanish and Hindi, he has also begun studying Bangla, to equip him for his latest assignment.

During his years in Washington, Thomas was responsible at one point for running the State Department Operations Center, a 24-hour alerting, briefing and crisis management office for the secretary of state and his principal advisers. “We ran task forces to support the aftermath of the bombings of our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, took the lead in running the evacuation of besieged embassies in Kosovo and Liberia, and supported attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan,” Thomas explains.

Thomas addresses the Holy Cross attendees at the receptionHe has won several State Department honors, including the coveted Arnold Raphel award for leadership, motivation and mentoring of colleagues—and Holy Cross classmates say this corresponds perfectly with the Harry Thomas they knew 25 years ago, when he was an active member of the Black Student Union and the head resident assistant in Clark Hall.

“Harry was always able to listen, to facilitate conversations and to advocate issues across all lives, at a variety of levels,” says Holmes, adding that he and Thomas remain as close as brothers. “And, he has always been committed to the country. When it came to the flag and the country, he was always a real patriot.”

“Clearly, we knew he was going to do something wonderful and in a leadership capacity,” agrees Mary Fuller McGrath ’78. “Service is a defining part of Harry’s life.”

It’s a value that began at home, according to Thomas’ older sister. “I’d say that our parents instilled an expectation of service—although we didn’t know it was ‘service’ but thought of it as a response and responsibility that everyone had,” says Nelda Thomas Canada, a paralegal in South Carolina, who, with her husband, has started a church ministry called Manna Station, through which they provide food and counsel to homeless people once a month.

“I owe a greater debt than can ever be paid to my personal heroes, Harry and Hildonia Thomas,” Thomas said when he was sworn in as ambassador. “My mother is an inspiration for tolerance and learning. My father is a source of strength and optimism for our entire family. A woman who participated in the March on Washington and a man who was forced to walk through manure to register to vote following service in World War II live to see their son serve as the ambassador of this great nation to Bangladesh.”

Small wonder that that son—one of only a few dozen black students in his class at Holy Cross—so quickly found a home on campus in the mid-1970s.

“I knew I wanted to attend a small college. I graduated from an excellent but impersonal engineering high school in New York, Brooklyn Tech, with 6,000 boys and two girls,” Thomas recalls. “I visited Holy Cross for a weekend as a senior and immediately fell in love with it. My father wanted me to attend Yale, but I chose Holy Cross, and it was the right decision for me. The Jesuits instilled a sense of purpose and belief in the importance of doing the right thing and never giving up, no matter the obstacle.” Five years after graduation, Thomas converted to Catholicism.

During the speech he gave at his installation, he referred to his alma mater. “You all know of the love I have for the two institutions that shaped my life: the State Department and the College of the Holy Cross,” he said. “This day would not have been complete without Fr. Brooks, Dr. (Ogretta) McNeil and my schoolmates from Holy Cross. Go Cross!”

“My best friends are from Holy Cross,” he added later, during an interview. “We were in each other’s weddings. We’re godparents to each other’s kids. We can argue political issues and remain friends because of the respect we have for each other. I have a wide scope of friends which I may not have had if I had not attended Holy Cross—white, black, Hispanic, men and women. I think we are all better off.”

“When he spoke about Holy Cross during his speech we were all cheering and had goosebumps,” McGrath says. “He has such a wonderful combination of compassion and humor—and that wonderful smile and laugh! He will make Holy Cross so proud.”

“Clearly, we knew he was going to do something wonderful and in a leadership capacity.”

Mary Fuller McGrath ’78


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