“I don’t think they were expecting much from me,” says Harry Thomas, remembering the time of his graduation from Holy Cross. “I was an average student and not a star in any capacity.”
Whoever “they” were could not have been more wrong.
Thomas has forged a distinguished career at the State Department, serving throughout the world in places like India, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Peru. He was elevated to ambassador to Bangladesh in 2003, an assignment he loved.
“We had 600 great people working there, a $100 million aid program, and great counterterrorism and democracy-building work,” Thomas says of the post he held until 2005.
As a Foreign Service officer, Thomas has not only been a witness to some of the most important global events of the past two decades, he has also been a participant. From 2001-02, he served under Condoleezza Rice as the National Security Council’s director for South Asia. In December 2001, he briefed President George Bush as the United States was negotiating to prevent India and Pakistan from going to war—the first of several meetings that the two would have while Thomas worked at the NSC.
“Post-9/11, I worked closely with President Bush and Dr. Rice,” Thomas says. “For anybody to have the opportunity to brief the president, it’s a great thing. Dr. Rice would leave you alone to brief him one-on-one. That’s why we would run through walls for her. She trusted you.”
At the time of his nomination as director general of the Foreign Service, Thomas was serving as special assistant to the secretary and executive secretary of the Department of State, where he ran Secretary Rice’s office.
Thomas’ proudest professional accomplishment came in the summer of 2006 when he led a task force that successfully evacuated 15,000 Americans from Lebanon during a violent conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah.
“We got everyone out safely without one loss of life,” Thomas notes.
During a speech Thomas made when he was installed as ambassador to Bangladesh, he expressed his love for “the two institutions that shaped my life: Holy Cross and the State Department.” And, as a State Department representative who carries the values of American democracy around the world, Thomas looks to the lessons he learned at Holy Cross for guidance and inspiration.
“The Jesuits teach you to do the right thing, and, when you do it, stick with it,” Thomas says. “That’s important to me spiritually—to be decent and to give back. I’m very proud of Holy Cross and how it prepared me for the rest of my life.”
What was your first job out of college?
I served as an urban planner in the South Bronx after graduate school. I worked there three years before joining the Foreign Service.
Why did you choose to attend Holy Cross?
I visited Holy Cross as a high school senior, had a great time and decided that’s where I wanted to go. I went to Brooklyn Tech in New York which had 6,000 boys and two girls, and I knew I wanted to go to a small college. I felt comfortable with Holy Cross. The people were very nice.
Who was your biggest influence at Holy Cross?
Professor Blaise Nagy in the classics department. He was young, and we could relate to him. He taught us that anything was possible.
Who do you admire?
My parents, Harry and Hildonia Thomas. My sister, Nelda Thomas Canada, who is a paralegal in South Carolina, established a weekend breakfast program for the homeless, which she funded herself with her husband. The two biggest public figures I admire are Jackie Robinson and Nelson Mandela. I also admire a person I knew in Bangladesh, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. He established the Grameen Bank, which gives microcredit loans to poor women so that they can buy products that they can then sell, and eventually lift themselves out of poverty.
- Birthplace: The Harlem section of New York City; Grew up in Queens, N.Y.
- Date of Birth: June 3, 1956
- Current Residence: Stafford, Va.
- Family: wife, Ericka Ovette, a jazz singer; daughter, Casey Merie
- Profession: Recently confirmed as director general of the Foreign Service.
- Awards: Several from the State Department, including the prestigious Arnold Raphael Award for leadership, motivation and the mentoring of colleagues.