Rev. Dr. Richard H. Thomas

Rev. Dr. Richard H. Thomas

Rev. Dr. Richard H. Thomas

Cedar Rapids

The Rev. Dr. Richard H. Thomas, whose contributions as a history professor, architectural historian, Methodist chaplain and cherished friend, made an indelible impact on Mount Vernon, Cornell College, much of Iowa and beyond, died at age 92, on April 24, 2023, in Cedar Rapids. A public service will be held at a later date.

Thomas’ more than 50-year affinity with Iowa began in 1967 when he accepted a dual appointment as chaplain and professor of history at Cornell College, Mount Vernon. Known affectionately as ‘Rev Thomas,’ he was a tireless advocate for connecting the college and higher education experience to the greater community. He developed courses on federal American Indian policy, the internment of Japanese Americans, and Midwest architecture. He headed the extensive research that placed the entire Cornell campus and Mount Vernon’s two other historical districts on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s. As recently as 2016 he led the campus’ annual candlelight vigil in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which included recollections of King’s presence on campus in 1962. He retired from full-time teaching in 2005.

His influence spread far beyond the Cornell campus. He served in leadership roles for Mount Vernon and Linn County’s Historic Preservation Commissions, and the Iowa State Historical Society, chairing its effort to restore Terrace Hill, the Iowa Governor’s Mansion. He was a part of separate efforts to interpret sites along the Lincoln Highway (old Highway 30), and numerous other efforts to interpret and celebrate cultural heritage.

Richard Harlan Thomas was born Sept. 16, 1930, in Aberdeen, S.D., the last of educator and lay preacher John Willard Thomas and Etta Grace Taylor Thomas’ seven children. He graduated from Macalester College in 1952, and earned an M. Div. degree in 1955 from Garrett Evangelical Seminary at Northwestern University. There he met Nancy Ellen Stikeleather, a Sacred Music student from North Carolina. They married on June 16, 1955.

He entered the U.S. Air Force as a chaplain shortly thereafter, and then served as a Wesley Foundation chaplain at Princeton University, simultaneously pursuing graduate studies in history at The Rutgers University, where he earned master’s and doctoral degrees. Throughout his career, he remained active in the US Air Force Reserves, retiring with the rank of Colonel.

He was a member of the Mount Vernon Methodist Church and Mount Vernon-Lisbon Rotary. His most recent community was Cottage Grove Place in Cedar Rapids, where he and Nancy had been residents since 2015.

He will be remembered most of all for his humor, warmth and eternal kindness.

He is survived by his wife of nearly 68 years, Nancy; daughters, Ellen Thomas and Jan Thomas (Gary Doernhoefer); son, John Thomas (Melissa Thomas); and five grandchildren, Eric Doernhoefer, Liz Doernhoefer, Anthony Thomas Zavin, Matthew Thomas and Lauren Thomas.

Memorial gifts may be made to the Richard H. Thomas History Scholar Award at Cornell College, the Cornell Fund, Mount Vernon United Methodist Church or the Iowa State Historical Society.

Arrangements are by Stewart-Baxter. Remembrances may be sent to the family via email at or U.S. mail co/ Jan Thomas, P.O. Box 703, Gambier, OH 43022

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