WRITTEN BY VALENTINE J. BRKICH
On the wall in his office, Aaron Thomas ‘04 M’08 has a quote from the late N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano: “Always remember where you started, where you are, where you’re going to be.” For Thomas, coming from the town of Middlebury, Ind., to where he is today as superintendent of the Cornell School District, these words hold special meaning. “I was just a kid from a small town with one stoplight,” he says. “Now here I am in Pittsburgh, mentoring and helping to mold the lives of young people.”
Thomas’s students really look up to him. Actually, most people do. At 6’7”, he is an imposing figure. But once you get past his size, you discover a Midwestern humility and a calm, confident demeanor. “I’m not the most vocal person,” he says. “I prefer to lead by example.”
It’s this type of show-don’t-tell attitude that helped Thomas have a storied high school and collegiate basketball career and a successful four years as principal at Cornell High School. This March, the school board appointed him superintendent after his predecessor retired. Thomas is also taking night classes as he works toward his doctorate in education from the University of Pittsburgh. And did we mention he has three young children? “Sometimes it feels like there’s not enough time in the day to get everything done,” he says.
One of Thomas’s more recent challenges came about due to something beyond his control: the school district’s declining population. Cornell — an abbreviation of its two communities, Coraopolis and Neville Island — is the smallest district in Allegheny County, with fewer than 700 students. And with fewer students and smaller budgets, Cornell, like many other schools, has been forced to make cuts. Last year Cornell’s football program was in jeopardy of going under, mainly due to a lack of players. But thanks to a collaborative agreement with Quaker Valley High School across the river in Leetsdale, Cornell’s players have been able to continue their high school careers. Last season nine Cornell students played for the Quakers. And it’s not just the players who have benefited from this collaboration. Thanks to the agreement, Cornell’s band gets to play the pregame show at home games, while Quaker Valley entertains the crowd at halftime.
Back in his hometown of Middlebury — which now has two stoplights — Thomas’s old jersey hangs in the rafters of Northridge High. His 1,262 points is the second-highest total in the school’s history. He was also the first player from his school to be named to the Indiana/Kentucky All-Star Basketball Team. He came to Robert Morris on a full basketball scholarship, and as a four-year starter for the squad, Thomas racked up over 1,000 points and 584 rebounds. He also served as team captain and was named team MVP in 2004.
Thomas received his bachelor’s degree in secondary education and his master’s in instructional leadership from RMU. During his senior year, Thomas was named the university’s Athlete of the Year by then-athletic director Susan Hofacre. Hofacre, who died in 2005, was a role model for Thomas, and her memory still impacts how he does his job today. “She would always talk with my father at my basketball games, ask him how he was doing, and just make him feel welcome,” he says. “I try to be the same way in my everyday actions, and it goes a long way.”
Thomas tries to make it back to the Colonials’ home games whenever possible. “I really enjoy coming back,” he says. “I owe a lot to RMU. It taught me so much more than basketball — things like perseverance and hard work; things that still help me today.” It also helped him find his wife, Casey Stone Thomas ‘04, a kindergarten teacher at Cornell. The Colonial Couple has two sons; Stone, 4, and Gavin, 2; and a daughter, Finley, 4 months. “I find it ironic that I can manage over 300 students on a daily basis and keep them in order,” he says, “but my own kids wear me out. Go figure.”