With the same humility and grace that earned him the admiration of many in Columbia County, Winfield's Vernon Thomas Sr. accepted a Board of Commissioner's proclamation honoring his life's service to others Feb. 21.
At the most recent county commission meeting, commissioners recognized Thomas as part of Black History Month for his tireless service to the community, said District 4 Commissioner Lee Anderson.
Anderson told the crowd Thomas was a "legend'' in Columbia County and that he had contributed greatly to the development of youths through his coaching of the semiprofessional Winfield Tigers baseball team and as a deacon at First Mount Carmel Baptist Church. Anderson also called Thomas a humble man who served his county with pride.
"I never dreamed I would be one of those persons that would someday be recognized for black history," Thomas said.
Thomas, a three-time candidate for the County Commission, said he was lured to the Feb. 21 commission meeting under the guise that he would introduce his pastor, the Rev. Roscoe Perry, for a Black History Month honor.
Thinking the pastor's friends and congregants should be there to see him honored by the commission, Thomas said he invited other church members to the meeting, only to be shocked to learn the honor was actually his.
"I didn't know I was soliciting (an audience) for my own honor," Thomas said with a laugh Friday, still surprised by the recognition.
"I didn't have a clue that it was about me until I was called to the podium," he said. "I had some notes in my pocket, and Commissioner Anderson said I could just save that for Pastor Appreciation Day."
Thomas, 67, who played professional baseball with the Kansas City Monarchs and Detroit Stars of the National Negro League in the 1950s, said Jackie Robinson inspired him to persevere as an athlete.
"At that time, being a young country boy from the rural areas living in Columbia County, I had never been away that far," he said.
He called his playing days an overwhelming experience that afforded him the opportunity to travel the nation, an improbable prospect for a black man in the days of segregation.
"It was really a unique and positive experience," he said, "because when I should have been somewhere maybe in the cotton field, I was out there playing baseball, which was the love of my life."
Thomas, who also works as an assistant voting precinct manager for the Board of Elections and is a former volunteer firefighter and past chairman of the Columbia County Health Coalition, said one of his proudest accomplishments in life was being a part of the effort to change the way commissioners were elected in the county.
During his three unsuccessful bids for a commission seat in 1984, 1988 and 1992, all commissioners were elected to at-large seats, voted on by the entire county, instead of the current four district seats and an at-large chairman.
Thomas, who lobbied legislative leaders at the time, said he hopes his efforts helped make the election process fairer.
"I think whether you are a minority or nonminority, that is the fairest concept for voters in any county," he said.
Still surprised, Thomas said he was appreciative of his most recent honor.
"I commended (the commissioners) for doing it because black history means so much to myself and others who cherish the fact that it's been deemed worthy enough to be honored," Thomas said.
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