Carol James had just arrived in Seattle when she first met the man so many University of Washington athletes came to know as “Uncle Ab.”
Carol, the wife of the late Washington coach Don James, had just landed at SeaTac Airport with her two daughters after Don had accepted the Huskies’ coaching job prior to the 1975 season.
And there was Abner Thomas.
“He said, ‘Follow me,’ ” Carol said during a public memorial service Thursday for Thomas, who died July 27 at age 86. “And I’ll tell you, when Abner tells you to follow, you follow.”
Thomas loaded their luggage into his car and drove them to a parking lot where Don was waiting.
“That was the first of many many acts of kindness that Abner did for our family over 40 years,” Carol said.
There is a bit of poetry, then, that Thomas’ memorial service was held inside the Don James Center at Husky Stadium.
Empty seats were hard to find. There was family — he had four children with his wife of 37 years, Donna, and seven grandchildren, along with siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews. There were former and current football players. There were coaches and athletic department staff. There were former co-workers from the Port of Seattle, where Thomas worked in the police department for nine years before serving as Airport Operations Supervisor, a post from which he retired in 1989.
They all came to honor the man who taught them so much.
“He taught young men how to become a man,” said former UW assistant Skip Hall, who worked under James.
Maybe that’s why so many of them call him “uncle,” and why former running back Willis Ray Mackey, a mystery recruit from Texas who played one season at UW (1979), said that “Abner Thomas was my first father figure.”
Thomas was a volunteer for the UW football team from 1973-89, at which point Mike Lude, then the athletic director, hired him as a full-time employee. Thomas spent the next 26 years counseling and mentoring football players, as well as other athletes.
Anyone who ever met him will remember him. On the sideline, he encouraged players with bursts of “all right, all right!” and “move them chains, move them chains!”
Thomas’ unrelenting positive attitude and virtuous lifestyle were themes of Thursday’s service, a true celebration of his life that prompted more laughter than tears.
A table in the back of the room featured wares of Thomas’ life — knick-knacks, a newspaper clipping, photographs from his 22 years in the U.S. Army — though the most prominent was a T-shirt emblazoned with one of his most famous “Abnerisms,” as his friends and family call them: “Wrong is wrong even if everybody does it. Right is right even if nobody does it.”
“If we were to truly speak well of who Abner was,” said Jonathan Rainey, the UW football team chaplain, “we’d be here for years.”
They tried, anyway. Hall remembered the instrumental role Thomas played in the recruitment of so many football players, including star defensive end Doug Martin, who also spoke at the service.
Martin, a native of Fairfield, California, was being recruited heavily by California, and the Bears coaches had taken him somewhere the night before signing day. Nobody from UW could get ahold of him. This was in the 1970s, long before cell phones and instant messaging.
“Don’t worry, Coachie,” Thomas told Hall, using the nickname he’d created for him. “I’ll take care of it.”
Thomas called Martin’s parents — “of course, he’s using his police and security background,” Hall said — and told them they needed to find their son and bring him home.
“Which they did,” Hall said. The next morning, Hall and some fellow assistants were waiting at Martin’s school when “around the corner comes Doug in a big, bright, purple T-shirt that says ‘Washington Huskies.’ ”
Not long after Hall’s tribute concluded, there was Martin, calling Thomas his uncle, remembering his unbeatable barbeque and Donna’s sweet potato pie.
Thomas, a native of Tyler, Texas, cried when Mackey left UW, he said. But they kept in touch, speaking at least once every month, Thomas encouraging Mackey to obtain his bachelor’s degree, then his master’s, then his doctorate.
He’s made a career in education, and he said of Thomas: “Without him, I don’t know where I would be today.”
Carol James said she believes the first favor Thomas did for her all those years ago at SeaTac has been returned.
“Somehow, I think maybe D.J. (Don James) was one of the first people to meet him when he got to the pearly gates,” she said. “And as I keep thinking about this, I wouldn’t be surprised if in Abner’s honor, they had them painted purple and gold.”