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Erskine mourns passing of retired professor

Dr. Howard Thomas, who taught for 45 years at Erskine College and retired in 2021, passed away Friday, March 17, 2023. He was predeceased by his wife Penelope Hitchcock “Penny” Thomas and is survived by his daughter Emma and her family. 

The family will receive friends from 2:00 p.m to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in the fellowship hall of Honea Path Presbyterian Church. The funeral service will begin at 4:00 p.m. in the church sanctuary. See the complete obituary here.

Reprinted below is the tribute marking Thomas’s retirement in the Fall 2021 issue of Inside Erskine:

As Dr. Howard Thomas retires from an influential 45-year teaching career at Erskine, generations of alumni will recall his extensive knowledge of his field, his contagious enthusiasm, and his lilting accent.

A native of Wales, he received his undergraduate and doctorate degrees at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. He came to the United States as a post-doctoral fellow and joined the college faculty in 1976.

Appointed Dr. and Mrs. James Rogers Young Professor of Chemistry in 2006, he received the SCICU Excellence in Teaching award in 2015 and was named an honorary alumnus in 2019.

Announcing at this year’s commencement that the longtime professor was being designated “professor emeritus,” Dr. Thomas Hellams said, “Dr. Thomas’s career has been characterized by exemplary service to Erskine College, excellent scholarship and teaching, and true commitment to students.”

Thomas’s colleagues on the Erskine faculty also benefited from his knowledge and commitment, including Associate Professor of Chemistry and Physics Dr. Tiffany Hayden, who served on the Erskine faculty with him beginning in 2009.

“I interviewed a year before I finally started at Erskine College,” she says. “Howard took a chance on me when I wasn’t even done with graduate school.”

Thomas was a mentor to Hayden, just as he was to countless students through the decades. College students often require the encouragement of a professor to help them recognize their own potential, and Hayden had a similar experience as a young academic.

“He saw something in me that I wasn’t sure was there, but he encouraged me to make the classroom my own, take ownership of my teaching, and do my best,” she says. “I’m still here 12 years later and I’m enjoying every day of being in the classroom with students.”

In her early days at Erskine, when Hayden and her husband were newlyweds, Thomas “invited us to church” and during the week “made sure I was home at a decent hour,” she says.

Later, when the Haydens welcomed their infant son, Clayton, “he worked with me to lighten my course load and make sure I was taking time with my family.”

Remembering Thomas’s wife, a longtime Student Services staff member who died in early 2019 and was posthumously named an honorary alumna, Hayden says, “Penny Thomas even knitted a blanket for Clayton and sent him birthday and Christmas gifts.”

A large part of Thomas’s legacy is his practice of “putting the student first,” Hayden believes. He was also “focused on making sure we had our best and brightest representing Erskine” in graduate schools and professional endeavors.

“He spent many hours writing recommendation letters and advising students on how to answer interview questions. He helped them research which program and field of study would suit them well,” she says.

Guiding and supporting students in their efforts to discover their life’s calling, Thomas displayed genuine concern for his students.

“We continue this tradition in the chemistry department by always putting students first and making sure they are showcasing who they are and the talents they have,” Hayden says. “We aren’t successful if our students aren’t successful and loving what they do.”

Asked what she will miss most about her mentor and colleague, Hayden says, “I will miss his institutional knowledge of Erskine. No matter how crazy the question, he always knew the answer and who started the procedure or tradition.” She will also miss “his support of me and our students.”

On a lighter note, she adds, “I’ll also miss his ‘sexy blue paper’—that’s an inside joke for chemistry majors; his updates on Welsh rugby; his laugh and smile; and his ‘incorrect’ pronunciation of aluminum—another inside joke.”

Noting that Thomas “gave a lot to Erskine,” Hayden says, “My hope is that we can honor him for his hard work.”

As announced at this year’s commencement, funds are being raised for an Erskine College scholarship honoring Howard and Penny Thomas.

For information about the Howard and Penelope “Penny” Thomas Scholarship, please contact Vice President for Advancement and Alumni Relations Paul Bell at or by phone at 864•379•8727.  



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