A tough hallway conversation made all the difference for Michael Thomas. He was well into his construction management major as a junior, but his grades were slipping and he was losing his focus. His technology professor noticed.
“He was not taking things seriously here,” Hank Campbell recalled. “He was distracted by other things. We had this heart-to-heart conversation. I told him unless you get things together and really start performing, you’re not going to make it.’”
It was a risky conversation for the professor and the student, who was raised by two generations of women. Campbell didn’t see his student in Turner Hall for a while after that blunt exchange. When they did connect again, Campbell noticed a difference. Thomas had made a decision. He was going to get that degree.
“He recognized something in me I didn’t see myself,” said Thomas, whose study was concentrated in plastics technology. He graduated in 1985 and went to work on the assembly line at Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing of America. He was promoted to engineer, and then senior engineer.
But that wasn’t the end of the story for the student and the professor. Campbell found reasons to drop in on Thomas at the plant, bringing students along for field trips. “It was really just an excuse to see him,” said Campbell, who taught in the Department of Technology from 1976 until retiring in 2004.
“He said that had a real effect on him,” recalled Campbell, who remains proud of all Thomas has accomplished. “Culturally, this was quite different for him. Saying yes to a professional position in a large automobile company in a Midwest location is the same as saying no to your friends and your neighborhood.”
Thomas, of Kentucky, is now in a leadership position with Toyota Engineering Manufacturing of America. He manages the machine/equipment group, which serves all Toyota plants in the United States and Canada.
Thomas still remains in touch with Campbell. Although more than 30 years have passed, Thomas still remembers that hallway talk.
“It was a conversation that was needed, and it definitely turned my life around. Dr. Campbell was not only a friend and a mentor, he was really my first male role model. I grew up without a father,” Thomas said.
“Sitting me down and having that conversation straightened me out and had me looking at things in a different light. I knew I needed to get an education, and getting that education changed the trajectory of my life.”
While attending a vocational high school, Thomas didn’t realize the field of engineering existed. He knew he had a mechanical aptitude, so he focused on carpentry. He was accepted at the University of Wisconsin. A friend mentioned a planned visit to Illinois State University, and Thomas tagged along. He found his fit.
“Sometimes you have to follow your instincts,” he said. “It turned out to be one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made. I truly, truly enjoyed my experience at ISU. The campus, the family atmosphere, the professors, and the people I met, lifelong friends.”
He established roots for a family legacy on campus. Three of his children are Redbirds. Veronique Hunter ’08 teaches seventh grade science in Indianapolis; Jules Hampton earned his master’s in 2016 and teaches geometry at the high school where he graduated and will be teaching in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and step-daughter Tiffany Boyd graduated with her bachelor’s in 2000. His son, Julian Hampton, is finishing his degree at Chicago State.
Thomas’ success enabled him to send his children to college. And now he wants
to do more as a result of, yet again, another conversation with Campbell. Thomas and
his wife, Sandra Gillespie Thomas, have created the Michael Thomas Family Scholarship for underrepresented students who want to study engineering education.
Education allowed his spouse to follow her dreams too. The couple met while working at Mitsubishi, where she became a senior vice president—making her the highest-ranking woman in the company’s history. She was voted Top 100 Women in the Automotive Industry two years in a row.
Thomas was inspired by Campbell’s scholarship efforts. He raised more than $1 million with his colleagues and friends for the Department of Technology in 2014. He also created the Dr. Hank Campbell Endowed Scholarship for Global Vision and Problem Solving.
Being able to similarly support, encourage and inspire the next generation means a lot to Thomas.
“Besides being a father, this is by far the greatest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m excited about the experience,” he said. “I’m older, my kids are grown. They’re off in their professional careers, and I have the resources to put some money toward helping someone come to ISU and fulfill their dream of becoming an engineer. If I can have an impact, it’s going to be an awesome experience.”
Campbell is committed to supporting the scholarship, just as he has Thomas throughout the years. Campbell wrote nominations that earned Thomas the Department of Technology’s Distinguished Alumni award in 2011, and a place in the College of Applied Science and Technology Hall of Fame in 2017.
Thomas laughs when recalling the brief biography he had to write for last year’s ceremony.
“You get a little older and you look back and say, ‘Oh wow, I’ve been doing all this.’ I thought I was just getting up and going to work.’”
Thomas is doing so much more. He is encouraging his friends, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity brothers, and coworkers to join him in supporting the next generation of engineers. He anticipates getting to know his scholarship recipients, just as his professor got to know him. He also plans on sharing their stories on The Michael Thomas Family Scholarship Facebook page.
“I want to have a relationship with them,” he said. “I want to get to know who they are, and for them to get to know who I am.”
Such a desire extends and exemplifies the impact of Illinois State’s commitment to provide individualized attention, which as Thomas attests, can make all the difference in a student’s life.
Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu.