The largest gift in the history of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke will propel the university closer to breaking ground on a state-of-the-art facility to house its School of Business.

A landmark $7 million gift from UNCP Board of Trustee member Jim Thomas and his wife, Sally, will transform the campus and have a lasting impact on generations of executives and entrepreneurs.

Sally Thomas has simultaneously gifted $110,000 to the university’s CARE Resource Center—an on-campus resource for students in need of food, clothing and housing assistance.

Pembroke native Jim Thomas is a prominent Los Angeles real estate developer and founder of the Thomas Family Foundation. A one-time owner of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, he was chairman of the board of Parkway Properties, which merged with Thomas Properties Group, until its recent sale.

The gift will go toward the construction of a $36 million facility which will feature a number of innovative spaces designed to foster 21st century problem-solving.

Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings was elated to announce the historic gift.

“Jim Thomas is credited with transforming the skyline of downtown Los Angeles as a world-renowned real estate developer,” Cummings said. “Now, his and Sally’s historic gift to the UNCP School of Business, sets the stage for a transformation of his hometown of Pembroke and the surrounding region.

“On behalf of everyone at UNCP, especially our students, I express our heartfelt appreciation to this remarkable couple for their leadership in this vital project.”

The pledge agreement comprises both current and deferred gifts totaling $7 million. A deferred gift of $3 million for the establishment of a fund to support the maintenance of the building and promote the work of the School of Business will come from the Thomases’ estate. The balance of $4 million is a challenge gift. To receive the latter gift, the university is required to raise an additional $4 million in funding to match the gift.

“We will be asking foundations, corporations, businesses, and individuals to help us make this project a reality for our students. I can think of no better way to invest in our region than making an impact on education and training available to generations of students,” said Cummings.

This gift, and the required match, will be added to the $23 million UNCP received from the Connect NC Bond and the $2 million in Golden LEAF funds, moving UNCP closer to the $36 million needed for construction.

The ultimate goal of the $7 million gift, according to Thomas, is to improve the lives of the citizens of Robeson County.

“This gift is a continuation of what I have tried to do with the entrepreneurship center and the endowed professorship which is to help the people in the community, to give them a better life by becoming entrepreneurs and increasing their wealth and well-being,” Thomas said.

“The new business school is also a continuation, in a sense, with the plan to build a modern business center that will be very attractive to students encouraging them to go into business and learn about business,” he said.

“Resources will be available, as well, to non-business majors who want to understand more about business and finance, and how to manage their money or work toward a career.

“It is my hope that these combined efforts will help the community continue to grow, changing the economic makeup of the region.”

The new facility will include a career center, a fully-equipped auditorium, a video conference room, computer lab, trading room, collaborative lounges and study spaces, and a multi-media resource room.

UNCP student Kayla Fesperman said a new School of Business will have a profound impact on business majors like herself.

“This new building will provide an enhanced environment for me to learn and grow. This new building puts cutting-edge resources at our fingertips, giving us an edge in our career,” she said.

Dr. Barry O’Brien, dean of the School of Business, said the Thomases’ gift will positively impact business education for decades to come. 

“This gift will further advance the school’s mission of preparing students for a competitive global environment, enhance their learning experience and prepare them to serve as business leaders,” O’Brien said. “This is a great day for the School of Business at UNC Pembroke.”

A long and fulfilling involvement

The Thomas family has supported UNCP’s growth through generous donations spanning three decades. The couple has given substantial gifts to establish the Thomas Family Center for Entrepreneurship and the Thomas Family Endowed Professorship in Entrepreneurship, among others.

“The Thomases’ most recent gift, and their strong record of philanthropy at UNCP, is a reflection of their deep and abiding love of our community, which put Jim on a path for unparalleled success in his field,” Cummings added.

“I encourage others to follow the vision and generosity of Jim and Sally by investing in UNCP’s mission of changing lives through education.”

Thomas was raised in a home directly across the street from the university. His parents, Earl and Ophelia, both graduated from what was then Pembroke State College, before moving to Ohio in 1952. He received a degree in economics from Baldwin-Wallace University with honors.

He graduated magna cum laude from Cleveland Marshall Law School, where he was editor of the law review. He was a partner in two prominent Los Angeles law firms and served in the Chief Counsel’s Office of the Internal Revenue Service in Seattle and Los Angeles.

His expertise in real estate law, federal income taxes and development issues helped him become one of the nation’s largest mixed-use, commercial and residential developers. His vision was credited by the Los Angeles Times with shaping the city’s skyline and its urban spaces.

Though he moved away when he was young, Pembroke had a lasting influence on Thomas. He is a frequent visitor to campus and a strong supporter of the annual Entrepreneurship Summit. He chairs the Thomas Family Center for Entrepreneurship’s advisory board. This summer he was appointed to the university’s Board of Trustees, by Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger.

To date, the Thomases have given nearly $1 million to the university. Their extensive record of giving includes an endowed scholarship in his parents’ name. The Thomas Assembly Room in the Museum of the Southeast American Indian also honors his parents. The Thomas Family Foundation also made a sizeable donation for upgrades to the Entrepreneurship Incubator.

Jim was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law degree from UNCP after his commencement speech in 1990.

“I have had a long and fulfilling involvement with the university,” he said.

Honoring a memory by helping others

In addition to the $7 million for the School of Business, Sally Thomas established a $100,000 endowment to support the CARE Resource Center in honor of their late son, James A. Thomas Jr.

Sally has also provided a $10,000 donation to help the Center address immediate needs.  

The news brought smiles to the faces of the center staff, according to Christie Poteet, director of the Office for Community and Civic Engagement. She said the funds will go a long way in their effort to end hunger and homelessness for UNCP students.

“This generous gift will provide a steady source of funding that will allow us to elevate our services for students now and in the future,” Poteet said.

“Though hunger and homelessness on college campuses are not unique to UNC Pembroke, we are unique in the way we are addressing these needs,” she said.

The James A. Thomas Jr. Endowment Fund sets a precedent that demonstrates an on-going commitment to helping our students, Poteet said.

“My husband and I are very fortunate to be able to create an endowment for the CARE Resource Center in honor of our son, James A. Thomas, Jr. When we were in Pembroke about a month ago we were told about some of the students living in their cars and others not having enough to eat, we wanted to help and decided an endowment would hopefully aid not only these students but others in years to come. 

“We know that a number of the students attending UNCP have limited means, and many are the first of their family to attend college. The CRC not only supplies temporary housing and food for needy students but also budget counseling, and help to find part-time employment.  Education and the knowledge of how to use it is important to succeed in life and reach our hopes and dreams,” said Sally Thomas.

“Our hope is that the James A. Thomas, Jr. Endowment will encourage others to create endowments to put the CRC on a sound financial basis to enable it to continue indefinitely. I am sure any contribution would be put to good use; we also hope that those who receive some aid will, in turn, help others when they reach their goals.”

Cummings adds, ”The support from individuals like Jim and Sally Thomas is the driving force behind UNC Pembroke establishing itself as an institution of choice in our state and a model regional university.”

The Thomases would agree, the impact of an investment in the future of UNCP students and our region is immeasurable, no matter the size.

It is their hope to set a philanthropic example and inspire others to match their visionary generosity to the university to complete the fundraising goal for the new School of Business. 

Feature photo: Jim & Sally Thomas

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