In the spirit of the ampersand, members of the William & Mary community are known for their ability to excel in a wide range of pursuits. Judge John Charles Thomas exemplifies that breadth of interest and accomplishment as a barrier-breaking former Virginia Supreme Court justice and a celebrated poet.

Thomas, a former William & Mary Board of Visitors member for nearly 12 years and retired senior partner of the Hunton Andrews and Kurth law firm, will draw from those experiences to deliver the university’s 2024 Commencement address, set to begin at 7 p.m. in Zable Stadium on May 17. In addition to speaking at the Commencement ceremony, Thomas – already an honorary alumnus of the university – will receive an honorary degree at the event.

A 1995 recipient of the NAACP’s Lifetime Image Award, Thomas, 73, was both the first African American and youngest appointee to the Supreme Court of Virginia. In addition to his work in the judicial system, Thomas is a poet who has worked closely with W&M faculty on a variety of creative projects. His address will occur during the university’s Year of the Arts celebration, which runs through the end of 2024.

Thomas spoke at W&M’s 2021 Opening Convocation ceremony.

The Class of 2024 first heard from Thomas in 2021 when he served as the university’s Opening Convocation speaker. Although they started at the university the previous fall, members of the Class of 2024 were invited to participate in 2021’s in-person event because their own Opening Convocation was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A dear friend to this university, Judge Thomas has called William & Mary students to ‘be magnificent builders in your whole lives.’ He models that type of leadership with his own life. His accomplishments are built on cornerstones of integrity, excellence, service and belonging,” said President Katherine A. Rowe.

“Judge Thomas is also one of our generation’s most exceptional orators. He will inspire our graduates as they embark on lives of meaning and distinction, bolstered by their William & Mary education.”

A series of firsts

Thomas was among the first African American students at Maury High School in his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, and received a four-year scholarship to the University of Virginia. He was one of only three African American students in his freshman class of 1,400 at UVA. He graduated with a degree in American government in 1972 and then attended the University of Virginia Law School, receiving his law degree in 1975.

Thomas then joined Hunton Williams Kurth — at the time Hunton, Williams, Gay & Gibson — becoming the first African American attorney at the Richmond law firm.

“I did not know what to expect,” he recalled years later. “We were not many years from the searing violence that scarred the nation during the days of the Civil Rights Movement. The Selma march, King’s assassination, riots in the streets of major cities — all were within recent memory, so it was a major step to be the first Black lawyer at Hunton & Williams. I saw it as part of the integration of our society.”

Another first: In 1982, he made partner, becoming the first African American lawyer to move from associate to partner at a major Southern law firm.

He was appointed to the Supreme Court of Virginia in 1983 when he was just 32, becoming both the first African American on the court and the youngest justice in its history. Thomas returned to his law firm in 1989 as chief of the appellate practice group and remained with that firm until his retirement in 2021.

Devoted to W&M

When it comes to William & Mary, Thomas’ devotion runs deep. His affiliation with the university began in 2006 when he was appointed to the W&M Board of Visitors. He was reappointed to the board twice, in 2009 and 2013.

In 2013, Thomas shared his autobiographical poetry in collaboration with W&M professors Sophia Serghi, Harris Simon and Anna Kijanowska in a recital of original work at Carnegie Hall in New York.

He and Serghi had met during dinner at the home of then-Board of Visitors member Kathy Hornsby ’79. Serghi described herself to Thomas as a composer, seeking common ground. He countered that he was a poet. At her request, he read a selection of his poems, some of which he had written as a teen but had kept to himself after a high school teacher excoriated his work as something a “colored boy” was incapable of.

Working with Serghi was part of “outing me as a poet,” he said. At Carnegie Hall, he ended up reciting 11 poems. In 2022, he published a memoir titled “The Poetic Justice.”

Throughout the years, Thomas has received a number of awards and honors from the university. He was named an honorary alumnus of the W&M Law School in 2016 and an honorary alumnus of the university two years later.

In addition to his service to William & Mary, Thomas was a member of the board of directors and executive committee of the American Arbitration Association. Since 2004, he has been a judge of the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, which makes determinations related to the World Anti-Doping Code for all Olympic sports, the Tour de France and FIFA. He is an honorary trustee of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and a member of the board of trustees for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 

He has served as jurist in residence for Gonzaga Law School and the Appalachian Law School and delivered lectures and other remarks at institutions ranging from West Point to Hampton University. In 2017 and 2021, he offered passionate wisdom to incoming W&M students at Opening Convocation. In one of his many memorable speeches, he implored them to “leap into the flow of history” that took place “right up the road.”

“We have great hopes at the start of this academic year for what you will become,” Thomas said. “What we are trying to do is to ignite within you the burning desire to learn — and keep learning — to push for fairness, justice, and equity. And then to share the light that is within you.

“The candle that lights another candle burns no less bright,” he continued. “If you have the one candle that is lit in a room of 1,000 and the other candles are out, you, with your one candle, can light the whole room. And you lose no brightness by sharing.”

, Communications Specialist