As the current chief operating officer of The Spartanburg County Foundation, Thomas manages the day-to-day operations of the foundation and its programs as well as spearheading countywide initiatives with her trademark determination.
Most recently, Thomas found a way to bring Spartanburg together and make a meaningful impact even in the middle of a pandemic through her virtual Real Talks series, which brought expert discussions on race, equity, and COVID-19 into people’s homes.
“Mary has dedicated her entire life to service. She’s a leader in the community by her thoughts, her words and her deeds,” said Karen Floyd, CEO of The Palladian Group. “She’s a very grounded woman and she speaks truth and she has been fighting for the underserved for years.”
On Saturday, Floyd and Victor Durrah, executive director of Brothers Restoring Urban Hope Inc, presented Thomas with the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor awarded to residents for lifetime service and achievement.
The award was given as the surprise conclusion of the Mary L. Thomas Women’s Leadership Virtual Gathering at the Robert Hett Chapman Center for Philanthropy. The event also honored five other local female leaders Marjorie Appiah, Cyndi Beacham, Alondra Black, Nannie Jefferies, and Krista Newkirk for their work in bettering the community.
Thomas was almost brought to tears by the surprise and the effort from the community that made the award possible.
Thomas got her start in the nonprofit sector in the 1980s as the executive director of The Bethlehem Center, which is an outreach program established by the United Methodist Church in Spartanburg’s Highland neighborhood. While at the center, Thomas developed programs to help residents in the area for 11 years before being hired at The Spartanburg County Foundation in 1998.
Her colleague at The Spartanburg County Foundation, President and CEO Troy Hanna, described Thomas as a connector with a unique skill set.
“I like having Mary as a colleague because she’s a thought leader. She will challenge you on ideas, which I feel is so positive,” Hanna said. “When Mary is working on something, she is 125 percent committed to whatever that is.”
In addition to her work at the Spartanburg County Foundation, Thomas is also a member of the Apella Board of the Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, the Converse College Board of Visitors, the BMW Community Advisory Panel, and the Northside Development Group Board of Directors.
Northside Development Group Board Chariman Bill Barnet said Thomas has been a member of the organization’s board since its inception.
“She exhibits the same energy and enthusiasm for improving lives and creating opportunities today as she has since her work at the Bethlehem Center,” Barnet said.
One of her long-term contributions to Spartanburg was the creation of the Grassroots Leadership Institute, said United Way President and CEO Paige Stephenson.
“It’s helped provide a venue for those grassroots leaders to gain skills so that they can elevate their voice. To make connections and begin to navigate so that they’re able to get those best passions connected into the community in a broader sense,” Stephenson said.
The goal of the institute also connects to what Stephenson sees as one of Thomas’ leadership trademarks.
“She’s a very thoughtful leader. She steps back and tries to make sure that all of the voices are around the table. She’s very much a servant leader,” Stephenson said.
Thomas also supports the work of others and after she became the first African American to receive the Council on Foundation’s Robert W. Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking, she used it to create the Mary L. Thomas Award for Civic Leadership and Community Change, which recognizes and supports the work of other Spartanburg community leaders.
Durrah and Adom Appiah, a local student-philanthropist who hosts the annual Ball4Good charity tournament, both Mary L. Thomas Award recipients, nominated her for the award she received Saturday along with nearly a dozen other community and business leaders.
Appiah described Thomas as a great mentor.
“She’s someone who never settles. She’s always looking to achieve the most she possibly can in any given situation. I believe that Ms. Thomas is someone who aspires for greatness at all times, so she loves to work with people who also aspire for greatness,” Appiah said.
Appiah’s mother and local author Marjorie Boafo Appiah, noted that Thomas’ goal of bringing all voices to the table extends to Spartanburg’s youth.
“She is investing in a lot of kids. All the Ball4Good kids have been to The Spartanburg County Foundation and have received grant training. She is pouring herself into these children,” Marjorie Boafo Appiah said. “And it’s not just all work and no play, she would have (Adom) meet her for ice cream, and they’d have ice cream and talk business.”
Friends describe Thomas, who was ordained as a minister in 1986 by the Rocky River Baptist Association, as a woman of faith, a dedicated daughter, sister and aunt, and an amazing cook. Thomas’ dedication to bringing community together extends to her own community of friends, colleagues and fellow philanthropists, with Thomas regularly inviting those she works with into her home and life outside of work. Thomas’ annual Christmas party and signature salmon stew are fond memories for many this year.
Over the years, Thomas has been recognized for her service many times receiving the James E. Whitmire Meritorious Award, the Sunrise Civitan Good Citizen Award, and the Mary McCloud Bethune Trailblazer Award.
Thomas sees serving her community as her duty and is driven to make a difference in people’s lives.
“There’s a scripture that says ‘to whom much is given, much is also expected’,” Thomas said. “Just growing up with two hard working parents and seeing the difference that they made with what they had, that it’s my duty to take those resources, to take what has been poured into me and to give it away.”