The first conversation I had with Nadene Thomas was during my interview for this job as an ATA staff officer. She was a member of the selection committee charged with finding someone to take on the public relations work that came with the new position. We were supposed to be discussing what I would do if I became the successful applicant and I recall that the committee members and I touched on this during the half hour or so that the interview lasted. What I remember much more clearly is that Nadene and I talked about families, both hers and mine.
At the time of the interview, Nadene was a district representative for Edmonton and I was teaching in Lethbridge. Because Nadene continued on with the Association in the positions of vice-president, president and past-president, and because I was lucky enough to get the staff officer’s job, I was fortunate to work with her throughout her active years with the ATA and to remain in contact with her after she left office and returned to the classroom.
Shortly after becoming president in 1984, Nadene came by my office and remarked that I must be keen on airplanes. The wall hanging of a Stearman biplane that has been a part of my office since I joined the Association was the giveaway. “When I retire, I’m going to build an airplane in my basement,” she told me, and we continued on from there with our second mutual passion. I asked how she would feel about carrying out her president’s tours by air instead of by road and the answer came back immediately, “When do we start?” Nadine thus became the first ATA president to take wing. All other presidents have continued the practice she pioneered.
The airplane we used for those first charter flights was a well-worn Piper Aztec. It had two engines and served us faithfully on quite a few trips. However, it wasn’t what is known as a cabin class airplane, with a set of stairs and a door that one can walk through to enter the plane. Instead, it had an over-wing entrance, which meant that whoever sat in the back seat climbed up on the wing and then eased themselves past the front seat into the back, rather like getting into a two-door coupe. Nadene, being a wonderfully substantial person, sat in the front, beside the pilot.
One of our trips took us from Hinton, north along the eastern edge of the Rockies and into Grande Cache. The scenery was spectacular and the pilot flew us over saddle-shaped passes and ridges as we made our way north. To the west, the mountain tops stretched away into the haze, fell away below us and merged with the foothills and parkland off the starboard side of the airplane. From my seat in the back, I was aware of an aura of complete contentment emanating from our flying president, her face caught in an expression of wonderment at what she saw and how she was going about seeing it.
Our Association has a history of attracting and mentoring outstanding leaders. This is made easier because of where they all come from, the classroom. Nadene was certainly one of these and she brought to the office of president bountiful measures of grace, friendliness, diplomacy, skill, compassion and grit. The characteristics that prepared her for assuming the duties of president were honed during a teaching career that began in country schools. These characteristics guided and supported her as she led the Association through the three years of her presidency.
In her later years, Nadene was an occasional and always welcome visitor at Barnett House. Sometimes she would stop by my office, supported by her ebony walking stick, and we would talk about sending her off to work on a special CTF project or having her apply for Project Overseas. Her interest in serving colleagues never wavered and she adapted appropriately to her circumstances to serve in ways that would be fitting and effective. She often left our little visits by saying, “We did have great fun flying, didn’t we,” and casting a glance at the Stearman biplane on my wall.
We can consider ourselves fortunate if we share a path on our journeys with people like Nadene Thomas and lucky if we can count such people amongst our friends. I would like to have had her friendship for many more years and fully expected that all of us would. Lights like hers are not easily dimmed. What we have instead are memories of a magnificent woman and the legacy she left to us of caring, of service, of talent and accomplishment, and of just plain flying right.
A note of thanks to Pat Doyle for her help and advice putting together this issue of the magazine. Pat is an advisor on gender equity issues with the Calgary Board of Education.