MICHIGAN CITY – Think, dream, believe, achieve! Those were the words around Peggy Thomas’ desk in her sky blue principal’s office at Edgewood Elementary School. And, they're the words Thomas, who's retiring after 39 years with Michigan City Area Schools, lives by.
Born and raised in Georgia, her family moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, when she was in the sixth grade. After developing a passion for serving those with special needs while working a high school internship, she earned a bachelors in Special Education from Eastern Michigan University.
Later, she would earn a Masters in Special Education Learning Disability K-1, a General Education Licensure from Valparaiso University, and a Principal Licensure from Indiana Wesleyan.
“I put on my application ‘Anywhere, USA’ and Michigan City called, and I’ve been here ever since,” Thomas said.
“Ever since” included nearly four decades as a teacher of learning disabled and mildly mentally handicapped students, multi-age teacher, general education teacher, instructional coach, assistant principal and principal.
“You can totally change the trajectory of a child’s life by being their teacher,” Thomas said. “I’ve always been taught that education is the way. You can give them the power to believe in themselves. You can teach them everything; and if you can, you’ve done your job.”
She also worked as a Multicultural Education Instructor at Purdue North Central, and a Visiting Urban Teacher Collaborator at Valpo.
It was her neighbor, Dale Ferraro, who hired her to teach at Joy and Niemann elementary schools. She taught learning disabled students for 15 years at Niemann, then general education at Joy. She and Ferraro's wife, Jan, then taught in a multi-age, fourth- and fifth-grade classroom for 10 years.
Ironically, Dale’s daughter, Angela Kenney, was her secretary at Edgewood; and, Kristin Smith, instructional coach and new principal at Edgewood, was one of her students at PNC.
“I’ve been blessed with a lot of different opportunities,” Thomas said, though principal wasn’t one she'd planned on.
Cathy Bildhauser (Director of Curriculum Administration at Knapp Elementary) encouraged her to obtain her principal licensure.
“She said we (teachers) already had to fulfill continuing education credits, so why not?” Thomas said. “I had no desire to be anyone’s principal,” but, “I’m glad I did. I believe this is the job I was born to do.
"This has been such a powerful experience for me because of the people. They believe so much in what we are doing to get things done. We all believe this is what we need to be and to do. I really believe I’ve made a difference. Anytime that you can know you made a difference and impacted so many – it just brings me joy.”
MCAS also led her to the love of her life, Donnie Thomas, who was a linebacker at Indiana University while earning his bachelor’s degree. After playing for the New England Patriots, he returned home to Michigan City to teach and coach for 34 years.
The Thomases were married for 30 years before he passed away in May 2017. They had two children: Quinten and Kristen, the latter a kindergarten teacher at Springfield Elementary.
While Donnie was a physical education teacher at Niemann, “I looked outside and saw those beautiful tree trunks for legs … and I went about my business,” Peggy recalled with a laugh. “I didn’t know anybody here. He invited me to his grandma’s house. She cooked – and I was hooked."
In lieu of flowers, she set up a donor-advised fund, the Donnie and Peggy Thomas Empowerment Fund, through the Unity Foundation of La Porte County. In addition to college scholarships, the fund has awarded grants to community projects including high school sports, Safe Harbor’s Champion Robotics Team and classroom materials for teachers.
“If I see a need in the community, I call Unity,” she said.
Thomas said she set up the fund “so when I cross the bridge, my kids can continue to give to the community. I wanted his (Donnie’s) legacy of support and helping kids to continue.”
Through a partnership with the Greater Michigan City Chapter of The Drifters, Thomas has been able to provide more college scholarships. She and three other women began the local chapter in 2018.
“I believe in my community. Michigan City has been very good to me, my husband and our children,” Thomas said. “It’s very important that when you can, you help and support this community.”
She recently joined the board of the United Way of La Porte County and is active at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church.
“You will find me at functions that involve children, and are positive and empower people," she said. "Having a great relationship with a child is what we both need … Every morning I greet every child at the door. It’s all about the relationships.”
Asked what she learned from the many students she helped guide, Thomas said, “Resiliency. Kids come in with many different perspectives and all different levels of support, but they also come in happy everyday to be here with a ‘Good Morning, Miss Thomas.’”
Her retirement plans?
“Not to be responsible for anyone but me,” she said. “I’m so looking forward to the new opportunities that are going to come my way. I now know and understand that you have to live your best life. You have to go out and just be. Wherever that takes me, I will gladly go.
“I’m just blessed and highly favored to be able to be in a job for 39 years," she said. "I know it’s time to let go and let God.”