September 23, 2023


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A Life Remembered: Barry Thomas was the ‘godfather’ of Kenosha County environmentalists | Local News


Editor’s note: In this occasional series, the Kenosha News takes a look at the life of a Kenosha County resident who has recently died. We share with you, through the memories of family and friends, a life remembered.

Whatever he did, Barry Thomas didn’t just take charge of a project, he dug right into it — from pulling invasive plants from a nature preserve or choosing new eco-friendly light fixtures for his church building to donning a top hat to teach kids about Groundhog Day.

“He really took ownership when he got involved with a project,” said his wife Patti Thomas.

A longtime educator with Kenosha Unified School District and chair of the Pringle Nature Center, Thomas died March 20 at age 77.

Born on Nov. 5, 1944, in Marshalltown, Iowa, he was the son of Walter Harvey and Jean Thomas. He grew up attending local schools and was a graduate of Green Mountain High School. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Iowa State and his master’s degree in education from the University of Iowa.

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In 1968 Thomas came to Kenosha for his first teaching job, which was at Lance Middle School. He met Patti Aasen and they married in Viroqua on Aug. 23, 1973.

“We had similar political views and both were teachers,” Patti said. She taught kindergarten for KUSD for 32 years.

Until his retirement in 2003, Thomas taught math and science and was a “traveling resource teacher” who helped teachers create lesson plans for science throughout the district.

Fellow teachers called Thomas “organized and a good delegater.”

“He was really there for the teachers and the kids,” said retired KUSD teacher Barb Flocker.

Thomas was named Teacher of the Year for the 1993-94 school year.

Environmental champion

Thomas took his curiosity for science and passion for education outside of the classroom as well.

He was chairman of the Pringle Nature Center for over 15 and chair of Kenosha Green Congregations.

“He came on and started volunteering a couple years after the center started and was a major influence in its development,” said Liz Alvey, naturalist for Pringle Nature Center.

“He really helped foster the educational component of the center. He wanted to make it a true nature center with activities,” she said.

“He looked at Pringle as an opportunity to get kids involved in science. He didn’t believe you could teach it all with a textbook,” Patti Thomas said. “His passions were things he lived.”

Most recently he had been involved in weekly rallies for March Forth to Earth Day. “Climate chaos was a big concern for him,” his wife said.

“He reminded me of several of my science teachers in middle school who were passionate about climate change but also a whole bunch of environmental issues,” said the Rev. Jonathan Barker, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church and vice-chair of Kenosha Green Congregations.

Church involvement

Thomas was a founding member of Bradford Unitarian Universalist Church, where he also applied his interest in environmental activism.

When it came to considering the purchase of the current Bradford Church building, Thomas was resistant at first because he felt the then 86-year-old structure was too old and too large to maintain in an eco-friendly manner.

However, once the decision was made, Thomas helped the congregation move forward with its restoration, making sure updates were done in the most environmentally sustainable manner possible, said congregation members.

Thomas was also a member of the Sierra Club, an avid camper and for several years headed a Boy Scout Explorer Post.

“I learned everything I know about biology by taking camping trips with Barry,” said longtime friend and fellow educator Warren Leisemann.

“Barry was a guy who enjoyed trying to do things and wanted to do things the right way. We worked together well,” he added.

Thomas took a long view when it came to the environment, said family and friends. “He was a nature lover but even more importantly it was about keeping nature healthy,” Patti Thomas said. “He was a ‘big picture’ activist.”

“Barry has got to be seen as the grandfather of the environmentalist movement in Kenosha,” Barker said.

Thomas also had a way of persuading others to help out. “If you knew Barry, you knew you were going to be recruited,” Alvey said.

“He would inspire and pull people into the things he loved one way or another,” Leisemann added.

“Service was his love language,” said his daughter, Tracy Thomas.


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