On Saturday, Oct. 22, as a recording of Mozart played softly at his bedside, M. Ladd Thomas, 87, died peacefully at Oak Crest Retirement Center in DeKalb. The word spread among the Thai Studies community worldwide as NIU’s Thai Studies Group prepared for the 44th Council on Thai Studies (COTS) conference.
As NIU’s first Thai specialist in the Department of Political Science and the founding director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, it was Thomas who initiated the first meeting of COTS in 1972.
Thomas, who received his Ph.D. from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy from Tufts University, came to NIU from Rutgers University in 1963, already established as a specialist in Thailand and the Philippines. The Center was founded after NIU became one of the first training centers for the teaching of Malay language to the first Peace Corps Volunteers headed to that region of Southeast Asia.
One of Thomas’s first tasks was to help to build NIU’s collection of Southeast Asia research materials, which today draws scholars from around the world. He was instrumental in the creation of an interdisciplinary community of Southeast Asian studies scholars at NIU.
Thomas was a widely published authority on Southeast Asian politics and government, primarily in Thailand, where his area of expertise focused on development administration and international relations, especially the intersection of foreign policies and security concerns.
“Ladd seemed to know everyone [in Thailand],” remembers political science professor emeritus and longtime friend Clark Neher. “When we were in Thailand, he introduced me to countless officials and academics. When I mentioned to someone in Thailand that I was from NIU, the person invariably replied, ‘Oh, you must know Dr. Thomas!’”
Thomas was recognized in 1986 by the late king of Thailand, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, with the Crown of Thailand award for his work helping to establish Thailand’s National Institute of Development Administration.
Thomas retired in 2005 after a full career that included serving as chair of the Political Science department and mentoring dozens of graduate students from both the U.S. and abroad. Many went on to positions in government and academia.
“Ladd went out of his way to mentor his students,” Neher said. “He felt responsible for assuring that his students loved Southeast Asia just as he did.”
In 2010, Thomas received a Distinguished Faculty Award from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which noted that the “strength of both the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and the Department of Political Science, in particular, Thai Studies, rests on the hard work of Professor Thomas, an iconic pioneer scholar of the college.”
“He loved telling his field stories and he was a natural storyteller about his very rich and larger-than-life experiences,” remembers anthropology professor Andrea Molnar. “One Thanksgiving when I had some students over, he relished the audience sitting at his feet as he rocked in the armchair recounting some of his adventures… He took any opportunity to tell these stories.”
Ever the scholar, Thomas was a regular attendee of CSEAS lectures, gatherings and special events up until his health began to decline in recent years. He is survived by two sisters, four nephews and a niece, and several great and great-great nieces and nephews. For more details, see his obituary in the DeKalb Daily Chronicle.