These remarks were delivered at the memorial service for Ron Thomas, former president of the University of Puget Sound, on June 24, 2023.
I’m a member of the class of 2004, which means that President Thomas arrived during my senior year. I was involved in student government at the time, and so we had regular opportunities to meet and get to know one another. Now, you’d think that since I had been here a few years longer than him, that I would know a bit more about Puget Sound. Yet from the get-go, Ron was the one showing me what it is to know a place. To know this place.
He knew each of us: he knew our names, the titles of our research projects, the scores of each day’s athletic contests. He grasped our symbols: the power of the mountain, the pulse of the sound. And he remembered: conversations we had while passing in the hallway, which chapter of the Odyssey we were studying in a given week, which movies had moved us.
He seemed all-knowing in that first year — but I think it was just as important for our community that he also seemed ever-present. Everywhere we looked as students, there was President Thomas: cheering at football games, applauding at concerts. He sat next to us at lectures, leaning forward; he joined us afterward at the cafe, leaning back.
A person wasn’t supposed to be president and be cool — but then Ron showed up, and he was both.
Ron’s inaugural address was built around the Tennyson poem, “Ulysses.” In the book of Tennyson poetry that was handed out to attendees that day, the bookplate features Ron’s loping signature, and above that reprints the famous phrase: “I am a part of all that I have met.” That’s a classic Ron line, speaking to connections and history.
As I’ve been thinking about Ron the last few months, though, what has really stuck with me is the next line in the poem.
I am a part of all that I have met
Yet all experience is an arch where’thro gleams
That untraveled land whose margin fades forever and
Forever when I move.
Yet all experience is an arch where’thro gleams that untraveled land… You see, the Ron I got to know all those years ago celebrated the past and loved the present, but he craved what came next. He was insatiable, eager to explore that untraveled land. When he’d write to me, he was rarely more excited than when he was focused on what he called the Next Big Thing. It was almost as if he knew, deep down, that the vistas ahead were greater still.
And I think that’s part of how he transformed this place. Not just through buildings and programs, but through belief. When Ron showed up, he created a new energy, a new pride in Puget Sound, a sense of destiny that hadn’t been here before.
He helped us — students and employees and alumni alike — feel that things were possible. Maybe even inevitable.
Wherever we looked, there was Ron, waving us onward, helping us see all the sheer and shocking beauty that was yet to come.
After I graduated, Ron became to me more than a teacher, more than a leader. Occasional emails turned into pretty regular letters; quick catch-ups transformed over the years into long discourses on life and meaning. We would email about art and poetry and history; from him, I learned so much about how to write, so much about how to live.
We’d get together in person when we could: sometimes in New York if he was visiting, often out here in Seattle or on Vashon. We’d talk theater and politics, books and careers — but it kind of didn’t matter what we discussed, because I left every encounter with Ron feeling strong and crystalline and worthy.
Presidents weren’t supposed to be friends — but then Ron showed up, and he became both.
I am so glad to be here with all of you today; I am also quite sad. And to that I know Ron would say: “That’s ok. It’s all part of the journey.” In fact, he encapsulated this so poetically in a letter he wrote to me a few years ago:
“And so, Ulysses: your journey has lulls of wind? Has monsters and distractions? So the route is not straight? The path unpredictable? Not as it was charted? Oh, there is darkness, you say, as well as light? Unanticipated encounters and obligations extended? Not according to plan, you say? Well, that is the journey, my friend. That’s why we take it, rather than just trace it on a map.”
Ron loved the journey, even with the monsters and distractions, and even up to the end. In fact, when he wrote me about his decision to enter hospice, he admitted he was feeling a bit bruised, but then he signed off with a simple and joyful line: “Stay with it,” he wrote. “Even the curves in the road are marvelous.”
Ron loved the journey. And I guess the point is that he taught me to love it, too.
That’s why today, even in our sadness, I see that untraveled land — though it is untraveled no longer. Ron has passed through that arch, on his way to the Next Big Thing.
I wonder if you can picture it?
I can: everywhere I look, there’s Ron — waving us onward, helping us see all the sheer and shocking beauty that is yet to come.