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Hon. Wadie Thomas, JD'80, honored with Pittman Award

Hon. Wadie Thomas, JD'80, winner of the 2018 Judge Elizabeth Pittman Award, given by the Black Law Students Association chapter at Creighton University's School of Law.Coming of age in the late 1960s as an African-American man in segregated Montgomery, Alabama, the Hon. Wadie Thomas Jr., JD’80, learned two lessons that have always resonated in his life.

“The first thing was that I saw how important it is to have contact with people from diverse backgrounds,” said Thomas, judge of the Separate Juvenile Court for Douglas County, who will be honored later this month with the 2018 Judge Elizabeth D. Pittman Award from the Black Law Students Association of the Creighton University School of Law. “I grew up in a segregated, all-black neighborhood, went to an all-black school. During the civil rights movement, Montgomery was a hotbed of segregation. But I came into contact with many white people, and white people came into contact with me, because I worked as a kid. I learned that we all have many things in common, and that many times those things in common exceed any differences that we may have.”

The second thing was that, as he watched the heroes of the civil rights movement make great strides for justice and equality in what looked like an otherwise untenable situation in the South, he could do anything to which he set his mind, and would have no justification if he did not.

“When I saw James Meredith integrate the University of Mississippi and go from class to class under armed guard, I asked myself, ‘How on earth can I have any excuse?’” Thomas said. “This man got his education under threats to his life, in a climate where he was not wanted. I think about Jerry LeVias as the first black football player at SMU going out onto the field and playing under threats of being gunned down. I have talked to young men and young women about this situation and posed the question, ‘How do you think you would be able to concentrate and perform under those circumstances?’”

After more than 22 years as a judge — the first African-American male to serve in that capacity in Nebraska — and a nearly 40-year law career spent lending his talents to help combat social ills, Thomas retired from the bench on Jan. 31. He will receive the Pittman award in a ceremony at Creighton on Feb. 23. Thomas' work influencing young lives, however, is far from over.

As a volunteer football and track and field coach for area youth teams, Thomas said he hopes to continue devoting time in that pursuit, and also providing training to advocates, social workers and other professionals in the areas of domestic violence, diversity and child welfare.

“I believe firmly that we can all accomplish great things with help and support,” Thomas said. “I have tried to be that help and support in my career, just like many teachers were for me in high school, college and law school. Many of those individuals helped me without even knowing that they were helping.”

That level of concern, coupled with Thomas’ actions as a trainer and coach have earned him praise from his colleagues on the bench. The Hon. Vernon Daniels, who served with Thomas in juvenile court for 17 years and has called him a friend since 1989, said the retired judge has a keen perspective on life in court and out.

“He truly embraced the work of the court,” said Daniels, who is also an adjunct faculty member in the School of Law. “He understood real life and real people, and he knew sometimes the conduct did not truly reflect the person before him. He was able to reconcile accountability with mercy, all without compromising community safety.”

Graduating high school not long after the desegregation of Montgomery’s schools, Thomas spent three years in the U.S. Army before enrolling at Alabama State University, a historically black university in Montgomery. There, he played football, majored in criminal justice and began envisioning a legal career.

With several professors at Alabama State, who were also lawyers, speaking not just to the theory of legal applications but to real-world experiences, Thomas said he felt a call to the analytical procedures of the law. As his college graduation approached, Thomas ran into an old friend, Johnny Hardwick, JD’76, who told him about his experiences at Creighton’s law school.

“I had applied and been accepted to a couple of different law schools, but talking to him, I started wondering about Creighton,” Thomas recalled. “I saw the school had a high rating and that Omaha was a larger and more diverse city than the other cities that I would have gone to for law school. That turned out to be the deciding factor, in that I wanted to be in a more diverse place.”

Unsure of what kind of legal career he wanted to pursue or where he would pursue it, Thomas said he took courses in a breadth of subjects. As graduation from Creighton law school approached, Thomas applied to become a special agent with the FBI, simultaneously beginning preparations for taking the Nebraska bar examination.

He passed the bar in October 1980 and, about six weeks later, the FBI notified him that he had been accepted for training at the bureau’s academy in Quantico, Virginia. But by that time, Thomas had begun practicing law and found he enjoyed it.

“So I decided to keep doing what I was doing,” Thomas said. “I never really looked back. I got a good education at Creighton, one that taught me many things I needed to know. It was a different kind of school, too. I had come from an environment that was predominantly black to a law school that was predominantly white, but even the Black Law Students Association had white professors and white students who were involved. That had quite an impression on me. In the years that I’ve been working in diversity training, I think we learn best and work best when there’s a cross-section of people involved.”

During his 15 years in private practice, Thomas served as a hearing examiner for the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission, hearing and deciding cases of disability, race and gender discrimination. He also found himself before Judge Pittman, the first African-American judge in the state, on numerous occasions and always came away having learned something.

“She was an inspiration to me,” Thomas said. “She helped me tremendously in the same way that I hope I am helping others. Just being where she was as a judge, it had never occurred to me before that I might be interested in becoming a judge, but she showed me that it was a possibility.”

In 1995, Thomas was tapped by Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson to become the state’s third juvenile court judge. There are now six juvenile court judges in Douglas County, and Thomas presides over the juvenile family drug court in the county. He earned Distinguished Judge for Community Leadership honors from the Nebraska Supreme Court in 2003, and last year was named the Urban League of Nebraska’s African American Leadership Award winner.

Thomas has consistently been one of the most esteemed members of the judiciary in the state, while also serving as a member of the board of trustees of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) and chair of the NCJFCJ’s Committee on Diversity.

Daniels said he’s already missing the many conversations he had with Thomas and his fellow judge’s salient grasp of not only the finer points of law, but of life.

“We’re all so busy here that the fact he and I had so much contact was very rewarding to me,” Daniels said. “When you’re in court every 15 minutes with volumes and volumes of reports to read, you have to go out of your way to have contact with a colleague, but he made sure to do that. He just had a great sense of humor. That’s one thing I don’t think people know about some of us. We have a pretty good sense of humor up here on the bench and that keeps us sane. You could always depend upon Judge Thomas to do what the radio commentator Joe Madison always says, ‘To put it where the goats can get it.’ Judge Thomas could do that.”

Reflecting on the Pittman Award and his career, Thomas said he was happy he made the decision to come to Creighton and remain in Omaha. He said he could not always measure the effect he had had on young lives in his courtroom, but there were more than a few instances when he would encounter both youth and adults who had been in his courtroom, at low points in their lives, and many of those individuals had turned their lives around.

“I don’t think I will ever know the half of it, but it is very rewarding to encounter people who express gratitude for decisions you made in their case because they now feel that those decisions helped them in some way,” Thomas said. “That is one of the things that is always a reinforcement for me. You don’t look at the cover of the book and decide what is in it without reading it. You do not just throw a person away because of their trials and tribulations. People change. I did what I set out to do. I wanted to be an outstanding judge, just like Judge Pittman, and I’m honored to receive this award.”

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