WOONSOCKET – Even 35 years ago, when this was a more robust city, Phyllis H. Thomas was a rare breed – a doctor’s wife who became a social activist instead of socialite.
After her death Thursday at the age of 93, it’s unlikely the city will see her kind again any time soon, says John Dionne, a former president of the City Council who knew her well.
“You don’t find dedicated people like that,” he says. “People don’t want to get involved anymore.”
Inspired by her late husband, Dr. Alton Thomas, who died many years ago, Thomas made historical preservation one of her early causes. The founder of the Woonsocket Historical Society later extended her civic reach to include protection of the environment and abandoned pets.
She carried herself with the air of an aristocrat and spoke with a bluntness that made politicians blush. More often than not, she was fighting against local government, but she earned the respect of city officials, who eventually named a park after her. The Phyllis H. Thomas Park, a neighborhood playground and conservation area off Diamond Hill Road, was dedicated in 1995.
“She was a very strong advocate, a very feisty fighter,” recalled former Mayor Susan D. Menard. “She didn’t mince any words.”
One of the first well-documented accounts of Thomas’s passion for preservation came when she spoke against the city’s plans to use a portion of Cass Park to build Woonsocket High School. City officials promised to use as little of the park as possible for the new construction, but when the city hacked away a picturesque grove of oak trees and set fire to the wood, she’d had enough.
Thomas and the Conservation Commission she co-founded went to court to block the project.
The new high school on Cass Avenue still got built, but in return for taking the land the court ordered the city to donate 12 acres of land across town, to be dedicated in perpetuity for the public’s enjoyment. The parcel came to be known as the Rhodes Avenue Conservation Area.
She had a way of getting under the skin of the officials in charge. She protested the demolition of the St. Ann’s gymnasium in the mid 1970s, arguing that it was a bulwark of French-Canadian heritage. When a sympathetic member of the city council invited her to tour the building, the owners took the move for nothing less than what it was – a publicity stunt – and they locked the doors on her.
As a guest lecturer to a group of ninth-graders at the now-defunct Woonsocket Catholic Regional Junior High School, she once asserted that Woonsocket’s record on preserving its historic landmarks was “zilch.”
“I think if I called the roll of buildings that have bit the dust, the list would be shocking,” she told the youngsters.
She was committed to her role as the civic conscience and resolved herself to being a thorn in the side of decision-makers.
In a 1994 interview with The Call, she told a reporter, “When you rock the boat and attack powers that be, you don’t win popularity contests or awards.”
Born in Ware, Mass., the daughter of a mill boss, she came of age during the Great Depression, which she often cited as cause of her family’s relocation to the Woonsocket area. With no work in Ware, her family moved to North Smithfield when she was 11 years old. She went to high school in Woonsocket because the neighboring town had none and graduated in 1937.
She earned a bachelor’s in journalism from Boston University in 1941. The same year, she married her first husband, Charles H. Palmer, who died of an illness while serving in World War II.
She later married Dr. Thomas, a brainy son of Woonsocket whose hobbies included archeology and history.
It was back in the 1970s when the now-retired director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Albert T. Klyberg, first met the couple. At a time when the Blackstone River Bikeway and the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor were barely a glint in the eye of a future generation of preservationists, Phyllis and Alton Thomas were giving tours of Blackstone Valley heritage sites. Her husband was writing short pieces about the city’s history for local newspapers, a series later collected into a book.
A political kerfuffle erupted among then-reigning members of the Woonsocket Library Board of Trustees when she was banned from distributing her husband’s work at the public library.
“He always gave her quite a bit of credit for accompanying him on his sort of wanderlust, so it wasn’t just a solitary journey,” said Klyberg.
After he died, Thomas redoubled her commitment to history and preservation partly as a way of keeping the memory of her husband alive.
In the 1990s, when the Museum of Work and Culture opened in Market Square, Thomas was instrumental in gaining permanent space in the building for the Woonsocket Historical Society.
“She was the Woonsocket Historical Society, I think that’s a fair statement,” said Ray Bacon, co-director of the museum. “We’ve lost a legend, a giant, really, someone who devoted her entire life to the city and its heritage. We need these kinds of people because they remind us of who we were and where we came from.”
She was not a schooled historian or a professional researcher of the past, but in some ways she was more effective at keeping history alive in her hometown, according to Klyberg.
“For the general public, and for the long run, Phyllis basically held things together...” he said. “We all respected her dedication and persistence.”
History and preservation weren’t the only areas where Thomas’s activism made a difference. An animal lover, she was also the founder of APAW – the Animal Protective Agency of Woonsocket – an organization inspired by a stray dog that froze to death.
Thomas was instrumental in the construction of the city’s first indoor animal shelter in the 1970s, a precursor of the existing facility off Cumberland Hill Road.
Things weren’t always easy for Thomas. In the midst of her battle to save the historic Woonsocket Opera House, the building was destroyed by fire, recalled Klyberg. On another occasion, he said, Thomas was storing a number of historical artifacts from Woonsocket in the basement of her home while she searched for a permanent place for their display. Some were destroyed in a flood.
“As she got older I’m sure it wasn’t easy to do,” says Klyberg, “but she kept doing it.”
Thomas’s only immediate survivor was a son, Jonathan Thomas of Providence. Family members and friends gathered for her funeral last night at the Holt Funeral Home.
She was to be buried today in the North Burial Grounds in Providence in a plot on her parents’ side of the family, a spokeswoman for the funeral home said. There will be a collation at the Museum of Work and Culture after the service.
“She as an icon for the city,” says Dionne. “She was not afraid of controversy. She’d take on anybody to protect the city’s environment. I was always impressed with her. She walked very quietly but she carried a big stick.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo