Jacquelyn Thomas receives 2021 Founders’ Day Award 

Academy librarian recognized for more than three decades of leadership.

Jennifer Wagner
May 21, 2021
Jacquelyn Thomas and her daughter Hilary Thomas

Jacquelyn “Jackie” H. Thomas ’45, ’62, ’69 (Hon.); P’78, ’79, ’81 and her daughter Hilary Thomas '81. 

Jacquelyn H. Thomas ’45, ’62, ’69 (Hon.); P’78, P’79, P’81 was honored with the 2021 Founders’ Day award during a virtual assembly on Friday.

Over 35 years as Academy librarian, Thomas transformed the Class of 1945 Library into an intellectual and cultural epicenter at the heart of campus life. Her visionary initiatives to bring Harkness teaching — as well as the diverse voices of visiting poets, artists and musicians — into the library proper promoted inclusivity and academic rigor.

Thomas was the first woman to hold the post of Academy librarian and the first faculty spouse to become a faculty member. She actively supported gender equality on campus as a founding member of the Committee to Enhance the Status of Women, or CESW, and spearheaded the creation of the first childcare center for faculty. Touching a small gold medallion with the initials CESW engraved on it around her neck, Thomas said, “I have worn this day and night since I received it. It is emblematic of what to me was an important time in my life and the life of Exeter.”

Principal Bill Rawson ’71; P’08 described Thomas as a “pioneer and champion of girls and women at Exeter,” adding his delight at extending her this honor and gratitude for her exceptional service.

Delivering the citation, Trustee, General Alumni Association President and Awards Committee Chair Janney Wilson ’83 said, “[Jackie] furthered two major aspects of campus life – the library and the status of women – to such an extent that the Exeter campus owes no small part of what it is today to her. She is an Exeter institution.”

In accepting the award, Thomas expressed heartfelt gratitude for the Academy community and also recounted some fun Exeter memories. Among them: ridding the library of blue mice let loose by Andover students inside the Louis I. Kahn building during Exeter/Andover weekend; cooking in the bathroom of her Wheelwright Hall residence when the dining hall was closed; and working with preps as part of the Junior Studies Program, which introduced new students to Harkness teaching and learning.

“Over the years, my life and Exeter’s have been intertwined,” she said. “My husband and my children, my work and my home have been at the Academy. I am eternally grateful to the institution and especially the people who made that life and that work possible for me.”

Early years of service

Thomas arrived at Exeter in 1957 with her husband, David, a classics instructor. She spent the next 19 years living in school dormitories, raising her daughters, and caring for “the dorm boys” with game nights and Saturday hot dog dinners. 

When her youngest daughter turned 5, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in library science at the University of New Hampshire. An internship at Exeter’s Davis Library provided her with a lens on every aspect of library operation. When a full-time position opened up, she boldly told then-librarian Rodney Armstrong that she could do the job in half the time. He took her at her word and hired her as a part-time staff member in 1971, the same year the first books were transferred to the new Class of 1945 Library. She was appointed Academy librarian and a full faculty member in 1977.  

Inside the library Thomas promoted change. She invited all faculty colleagues, for example, to teach in the library and installed a Harkness table in Rockefeller Hall. She pushed for the library to be recognized as a sophisticated learning tool and the librarians as professional partners. In 1989, she was honored with the Rupert Radford ’15 Faculty Fellowship and a year later was named the first James H. Ottaway Jr. ’55 Chair. After 25 years, the Academy recognized her as “a teacher of teachers.”  

To enact her ideas, Thomas raised funds and spurred generous gifts — like the 1632 folio of Shakespeare — that added to the Special Collection’s national prestige. In 1994, she oversaw the digitization of the library catalog. She also coached girls tennis and served on more than 20 committees, including the Curriculum Committee.  

Not surprisingly, some of Thomas’ most memorable achievements happened inside the library. With inspired imagination, she invited 10 Tibetan monks to build a sand mandala in the center of the library’s Rockefeller Hall. She pioneered the Lamont Poetry Series to bring poets like Jorge Luis Borges, Allen Ginsberg and Gwendolyn Brooks to campus. She organized a summer concert series and rotating art exhibitions. She gave students a voice as library proctors and as creators of bookmarks to share their reading lists.   

Toasting an icon

Following the assembly, Thomas was joined over Zoom by nearly 30 friends, family members, trustees, colleagues and former students for a joyous and emotional toast. Attendees regaled Thomas with stories of the personal impact she made on their lives and recounted their sincere thanks for her support and teaching.

With her daughter Hilary by her side, Thomas said, “I am truly overwhelmed by the amount of attention being paid. I cannot believe that I deserve it all, even though I’ll take it all.”

The Founders’ Day Award was conceived by Principal Stephen G. Kurtz and established by the Trustees in 1976. It is given annually by the General Alumni Association in recognition of devoted service to the Academy.