When Bryan Thomas accepted the reins as chair of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Foundation Board in January 2018, he knew he would be able to draw upon his prior years of experience leading other community nonprofit organizations.
According to Thomas, the Foundation Board helps create a culture of philanthropy, engagement and support for Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, with the mission “to secure and steward philanthropic resources to meet priority needs and initiatives of Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital.”
While facilitating those goals, Thomas notes, he strives to make the experience an enjoyable one for the more than 20 board members, as well as to maximize the value of their time and expertise.
“These are people who are asked to invest personally with their time, talents and resources, and I believe we might as well enjoy what we’re doing while we’re doing it,” he says. “I encourage everyone to address each other by their first names, build friendships and hopefully carry those friendships beyond their service to the board. That way, members can look forward to their time working together, because ultimately it’s teamwork that allows us to be effective.”
This philosophy is hardly a surprise, given that Thomas has long made it a point to enjoy life to the fullest. As an example, he has spent every year since his youth playing football (he was quarterback for his high school and college teams), coaching the sport, or serving as a referee for high school and college games. He has twice officiated the annual Harvard-Yale game, and he has refereed numerous playoff games in the NCAA Division I-AA National Championship Series.
“I love being in the middle of all that action,” Thomas says, noting that while a knee injury took him off the field about three years ago, he continues to serve as a replay official and technical advisor for college games. “It’s so much fun—even when you’re getting yelled at by both teams. I love it!”
Thomas is equally passionate about community service and helping others. In fact, growing up in Lynchburg, where his father was first an elementary school principal and later the head of the local Pepsi-Cola and Dr. Pepper bottling plant, Thomas briefly entertained the idea of becoming a doctor. He even studied biology as a pre-med major at Ferrum College and Hampden-Sydney College.
“I had a real passion for medicine,” he recalls. “But since I was also playing football, the labs got to be a real challenge, and I soon realized that I didn’t want to spend all those extra years in school.”
Thomas decided instead to follow his father into the business world and soon transferred to Lynchburg College, where he met his wife, Jane, and eventually earned a degree in business administration. After working in sales for IBM, he opted to go into commercial lending. His first job at United Virginia brought him to Charlottesville, and since then he has held commercial lending and management positions with Central Fidelity, One Valley Bank, BB&T and, presently, First Citizens.
One of the first things Thomas did after settling in Charlottesville was to volunteer as a board member for the American Red Cross. Soon he was chairing the board and working closely with the organization’s executive director at the time, Ray Mishler, who today is vice president of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Foundation.
“I’ve always had a desire to be involved in the community because my parents were so involved, and it’s just the right thing to do—to give back in a way that is both productive and enjoyable,” he says.
Over the years, Thomas became involved with other organizations, including Special Olympics, the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce. In 2009, he brought his fundraising and organizational skills to Martha Jefferson Hospital, where he served on the New Hospital Campaign Committee and later as a Foundation Board member.
“Martha Jefferson Hospital is so personally important to my family,” he says. “They provide such individualized and compassionate care and service.”
His daughter, Lindsay, 26, an occupational therapist, and son Robert, 23, a bank branch manager in Baltimore, were born at the downtown hospital (his second son, Mark, 20, a rising junior at James Madison University, was born at Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg). Over the years, the children would occasionally receive care in the Martha Jefferson Emergency Department. More recently, Thomas himself underwent knee surgery at Sentara Martha Jefferson, and his mother-in-law, who now lives with the Thomas family, receives cardiac care at the hospital.
Being involved with the Foundation has helped him realize how crucial the board’s fundraising work is to sustaining the Caring Tradition, for which the hospital is so well known. Whether helping nurses and clinical staff advance their education; supporting breast health screenings for those unable to afford them; or funding Acts of Kindness, an initiative that provides tokens of encouragement to patients and families, the work of the board is a meaningful way in which Thomas and the other members can give back to their community.
For Thomas, his service on the Foundation Board brings together his years of study, business experience and dedication to community service. Although he’s not a doctor as he had once hoped, his work on the board helps make a difference in patient care and outcomes.
“This Foundation does so much to support the operations of the hospital,” he says. “It’s really an honor and a privilege to be a part of it. And yes, it’s a lot of fun, too!”