Legendary Music Chair Thomas Passes Away

William Thomas, Instructor and Chair in Music from 1975 to 1989 and Director of Performance from 1989 to 2008, passed away on Sunday at the age of 62.

During his time at Andover, Thomas breathed life into the Andover Music Department, establishing various music programs such as the Gospel Choir and the Chamber Music program.

“He was almost like a legendary figure in the way he created these programs all by himself. He raised the Music Department to the level it is now,” said Christopher Walter, Instructor in Music and a friend of Thomas for 35 years.

Thomas arrived at Andover in 1974 to find a meager Music Department that was affiliated with only three faculty members. Far from the 20-person group it is today, the Academy Chamber Orchestra then consisted of just a handful of students, according to Walter.

Within a year of his arrival, Thomas was named the Chair of the Music Department, and music programs flourished under his guidance. Thomas eventually succeeded in transforming Andover into a desirable place for dedicated student musicians.

“He had immense charisma. He was so persuasive that he was able to get the administration [to] help him make the music programs something more than just a side project. He wanted music to be an integral part of Andover’s curriculum,” said Walter.

Peter Cirelli, current Instructor and Chair of the Music Department, said the best word to describe Thomas would be “visionary.”

“When he came [to Andover,] Mr. Thomas immediately saw what he felt would be the appropriate department for a school of this stature to have in music. He was determined to build [the program] and definitely succeeded in doing so. Many people have contributed to building this department, but no one more than Mr. Thomas,” said Cirelli.

Thomas’ biggest contribution to the Music Department was the creation of the annual concert tour with the Cantata Choir and Academy Chamber Orchestra.

Thomas first took Cantata and Chamber Orchestra students to Scotland in the mid-1970s. Each year since then, the students have travelled to numerous countries, including China and Spain.

“With [Thomas,] everything was about inclusion. He wanted as many students to get the experience of going to a different country and would take the entire orchestra on trips,” said Walter.

Best known for his determination and the sense of warmth he exuded, Thomas left a permanent mark on many students and faculty.

“[Thomas] would go out of his way to help the students, and he was probably the biggest advocate for music students. He nurtured students in a profound way, taking all of them in underneath his care,” said Walter.

“Mr. Thomas had an extraordinary spirit that successfully pierced the apparent severity of so many situations. His passion for classical music was inspiring enough, yet it was the balance of this considerable fire with a love of friends, games and the beach that represented a perfectly measured life to me,” wrote William Walter ’03 in his tribute to Thomas.

Cirelli, who started working under Thomas as a trombone teacher in 1986, said that he will miss Thomas’ warmth and passion.

“He was just passionate about everything. He was passionate about taking care of people, making sure everyone felt like they were part of the department. He also was devoted to music and working hard,” he said.

Thomas enjoyed interacting with the students; his joking manner created an atmosphere that was comfortable yet productive.

“Mr. Thomas would always tell his students that if they didn’t come on time to the rehearsals or weren’t working hard enough, he was going to sit on top of them,” said Cirelli.

Thomas oversaw the Graves Hall renovation project in 1983, working with the architect to model the building. He also established the music requirement for all Andover students, according to Walter.

In his life-long desire to convey the black community’s contributions to the musical culture, Thomas founded Andover’s Black Arts Weekend and was dedicated to bringing renowned artists to campus, according to the Andover website.

After retiring in 2008 to his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, Thomas dedicated the rest of his life to renovating and re-establishing his childhood church, a significant black history landmark constructed and paid for by slaves in the 1850s, according to the Andover website.

In his later years at Andover, Thomas also worked as the Director and the Director of Performance of the Cambridge Chorus in Boston.

“It wasn’t just [at] Andover that his influence was felt. He was able to bring together different people with unique backgrounds from the all corners of Cambridge to sing for the choir,” Walter said.

“He had an enormous zest for living and a huge appetite for music. He just loved life. We will all miss him greatly,” said Walter.