Norman Abahamson
(Prof. emeritus, Univ. of Hawaii)

Dear Hisashi,

Sorry to hear about John. John and I did indeed have the same academic father, Bill Harman, at Stanford. But I believe we overlapped at Stanford for less than a year (the ’55 – ’56 academic year). And I did not really get to know John until we met at scientific conferences beginning in the 1960’s.

John and I shared the same fond memories of our Ph.D. work with Bill Harman. Bill was unusual at Stanford in that he was not generally active in the research area of his graduate students. But Bill took teaching grad students seriously and John and I learned a lot about communication theory and about teaching graduate students from Bill.


Oscar Au *91

Dear Randall,

My name is Oscar Au and I am Prof. J. B. Thomas’s last Ph.D. student in Princeton. I joined Princeton in 1986 and graduated in 1991. I studied under Prof. Thomas together with two other of his students: Pam Neilson and Frank Brochin. We usually called him “Dr. Thomas” as perhaps it is shorter than “Professor Thomas”. ☺

Dr. Thomas is such a gentle, kind and patient supervisor. Being a student from Asia, with poor English, I was having a hard time adjusting to the Princeton pace. Dr. Thomas’ 8 a.m.- class was always a challenge – as I tended to be a night person. But I loved the theory and the math, and the way Dr. Thomas taught and interacted with students. I am thankful that Dr. Thomas took me in as one of his students. I am honored to be associated with such a distinguished scholar and fine human being! He is instrumental to my Princeton training. Apart from his immense academic knowledge, Dr. Thomas impressed me with his great insight into life, politics and academia. I am deeply indebted to Dr. Thomas for his kind and inspirational supervision!

I got married in 1990 before my graduation. Mrs. Thomas was so kind to give us a wonderful and thoughtful wedding gift of a quilt – I believe it was handmade!

After graduation, I worked in the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology as Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Full Professor. I changed my research focus to signal/image/video processing, but still making full use of the statistical analysis skills I learned from Dr. Thomas. A few years ago, I joined a startup company called Origin Wireless specialized in wireless sensing – still using the statistical communication skills from Dr. Thomas. These days, I am coming to realize that everything has a statistical nature and Dr. Thomas’ detection and estimation theory has many many applications.

Thank you, Dr. Thomas, for your kindness, your gentleness, your encouragement, your guidance, your inspiration, your example, and your training! I am forever thankful! We miss you!

Best regards,

Ian Blake *67

I was John’s student from 1964 to 1967. From the start I was most impressed with John’s values of responsibility, self-reliance, honesty, fairness and plain hard work. He was most generous with his time and advice, which I valued highly, but the standards he adhered to and expected from students, of commitment and performance, were never out of mind. I became aware and somewhat intimidated by the eminent students that John had already graduated. That list only continued to grow and came to include Deans of Engineering at Princeton and numerous other high-ranking positions at prestigious universities around the world. Being a Thomas student carried a cachet and prestige that I took pleasure in, however much undeserved. I looked back at my time at Princeton often during my career, remembering John’s down to earth advice, warmth, friendship and generosity. I would like to think I passed on some of John’s character to my students but John was unique. He had a profound influence on my career and I have always been grateful for my association with him. My wife and I visited him twice in California, somewhat surprised that a farm boy from Pennsylvania would choose to settle in a dry canyon outside of Santa Margarita after such a distinguished career in the Ivy League. He and Eleanor seemed entirely happy there. He took great delight in his John Deere runabout, a retirement present from his Princeton colleagues. I remember the secret room off his garage he designed when he built the house, for his impressive collection of firearms. The rifle range he had set up at the foot of his property was well used. The few times we ate out while there were at unpretentious family restaurants, entirely within character. In a recent phone call I was curious as to his take on the current political situation. He observed, somewhat wryly, that people tended to get the leaders they deserved. I called him every few months in California and once at his daughter’s place in New Hampshire. He joked that he wanted to live to be a hundred so that he would be retired the same length of time he served at Princeton. He almost made it. I am sorry that he didn’t.

Frank Brochin *90

Oct. 11, 2018

Dear Professor Randall Thomas,
I just heard of the passing of your father, Professor John B. Thomas, and am truly very saddened by it. I was one of his last two or three graduate students at Princeton, where I completed my Ph.D. in December 1989. Your father has been regularly in my thoughts ever since. I recall asking him to be my Ph.D. advisor in the spring of my second year. I approached him many weeks before most students typically made such requests, as I knew he was nearing retirement and would not take many new advisees… but if he was going to take only one more, I wanted to be the first one to ask! I was delighted and honored when he accepted on the spot. His field of research had nothing to do with mine, and he warned me that he would not be able to guide me much from a research perspective, but I picked him anyway because I could sense that he was a wise, humble and genuinely kind person, and that he had much to teach me besides electrical engineering. He did not disappoint me! Working with your father was a very enriching experience, and I have kept a wonderful memory of my time with him. He was truly a great human being and I could not have hoped for a better person to guide me in my last years of study.

Best regards,
Frank Brochin
New Providence Asset Management
570 Lexington Avenue, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10022

Jack Carlyle and Sheila Greibach

Nov. 5, 2018

When I joined the Princeton EE faculty in 1961 as a naive newly-minted Berkeley Ph.D. in need of mentoring, John Thomas fulfilled that role superbly. I witnessed his admirable guidance of graduate students and research. Those early days were near the beginning of John’s extraordinary record of impact on the scientific/engineering community through the notable careers of the many students that he guided.

I experienced first-hand his consistent emphasis on clarity in writing and presentation when we worked on a paper together. After I moved to the West Coast and UCLA, I continued to benefit from his advice and enjoyed meetings at conferences and visits to his home with Eleanor and John as warm-hearted hosts, through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and beginning in the 70s accompanied by my wife and colleague Sheila Greibach who joins me in our tribute to a friend of both of us.

In the 90s when John and I retired we lost these direct contacts but we thought of him frequently and recalled his kindness and his keen insights. We were glad to see the recent photos provided by Chung-Chieh Lee – there was the same John that we admired so much!

Our condolences to John’s family, friends and colleagues everywhere – his was a remarkable life well-lived and to be celebrated by all of us.

Best regards,

Jack W. Carlyle, Professor Emeritus
Computer Science, UCLA


Sheila Greibach, Professor Emeritus
Computer Science, UCLA

Anthony Ephremides *71
(Prof. University of Maryland)

Oct. 15, 2018

I arrived at Princeton in September of 1967 when John was on sabbatical in California. But he had been designated to be my advisor. I interacted with Bede Liu for my first academic year and continued with John already in the summer of 1968 until my graduation in 1971.

I have always valued my collaboration with John at all levels. As an academic advisor he had a unique “feel” about the direction of research I was pursuing and offered me crucial advice. As a professor, he was methodical, lucid, respectful, and, in return, he commanded natural respect from the students. As a mentor, he taught me modesty, persistence, optimism, and a whole lot about life in the profession and in the world. He was soft-spoken and polite but a streak of steel in his manner revealed strength and commitment. And after graduation, I maintained a close touch with him for several years and continued to benefit from his wisdom.

I have the fondest memories of my years in Princeton and he was one of the main reasons for that.

An anecdote, that I wish to relay to you, concerned a chat I had with him after the end of my third semester (my first of working with John). I had taken the course on Information Theory from him and had obtained a B. He asked me how I had done in the other courses I had taken. I told him there were all A’s; his was my only B. His comment was that the B made the A’s look better! Typical John! And, in a way, he was right.

Occasionally over the ensuing years I was receiving news and updates about him from some of his other students who had stayed in closer touch with him. His support and advice made a difference. I will never forget him. And my respect for him will stay high and vibrant.

My best wishes to his family.

Anthony Ephremides
Distinguished University Professor and Cynthia Kim Eminent Professor of Information Technology
ECE Dept and ISR, University of Maryland

Eberhard Hänsler
(Prof. Emeritus, Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany)

Oct. 9. 2018

Dear Hisashi:

It is very sad that Professor Thomas died.

I used to come to Princeton for its CISS (Conference on Information Science and Systems). And I usually visit him at his office during the conference. I remember one event: When we were about to go out for lunch, it looked like a rain might be coming. I asked Prof. Thomas whether I should take a raincoat with me.

His answer, “I was grown up on a farm and my grandfather used to say ‘The worst thing that can happen is that we’ll get wet.’.” We indeed got wet!

Best regards

Hisashi Kobayashi *67
(Prof. Emeritus, Former Dean of Engineering, Princeton University)

Jan. 1, 2019 (Excerpt from Season’s Greetings to friends)

In mid September 2018, I received saddening news that Professor John B. Thomas, my Ph.D. thesis advisor at Princeton, passed away at age 93. My wife and I owed to him and Mrs. Thomas a great deal ever since I applied to Princeton for a doctoral study. A month before the official notice of admission with the Munn Fellowship from the Dean of the Graduate School was received, Prof. Thomas kindly notified me of the upcoming offer. Upon our arrival in Princeton, Mrs. Thomas, who was on the Board of the University League, kindly took me and Masae in her huge station wagon to the storage place of the League where many pieces of donated furniture were stored, and thus we could instantly furnish our empty apartment with necessary furniture. If it were not for her kind help, we would have spent much time in seeking affordable furniture. Prof. Thomas allowed me to work on the research topic I chose. Thus, my course work and thesis research progressed expeditiously, allowing to obtain a Ph.D. in two years. I was much disappointed, however, to find that there was no opening in the “Data transmission theory” group at Bell Labs. Prof. Thomas suggested that I should apply to the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center. Thanks to his strong recommendation letter, I could land an excellent research position immediately there, where I worked for the next 19 years. In 1986, having found that I was being seriously considered for an Endowed Chair position at the University of California at San Diego, Prof. Thomas promptly suggested to the then Chair of Electrical Engineering, Prof. Stuart C. Schwartz, that I be nominated as a candidate for the next Dean of the Engineering School. At all the important junctures in my life – carrying out my Ph.D. studies, joining the IBM Research, and serving my alma mater as Dean – Prof. Thomas played a pivotal role. May his soul rest in peace in heaven.

Chung-Chieh Lee *80
(Professor, Northwestern University)

Oct. 18, 2018

Dear Randy and Hisashi,

I was the 30th PhD of John’s (1980). I am deeply saddened and very surprised by the passing of John.

John defined and shaped my career, my life, and my whole family. His wisdom, his kindness, his patience, and his tireless support, including support from his awesome elite academic family network will forever be in my heart.

Three of my four children attended Princeton, the first two graduated when Vince (Poor) was their Dean. All three have visited John at his Santa Margarita hideout.

The most memorable moments for me were those one-on-one research meetings in his office when he was unhappy about someone (me, sometimes) or something, he always managed to control his displeasure, regrouped and refocused, and ended the meeting productively and in better mood. I learned that trait and applied to my own academic career – a tremendous help to say the least.

The sad news came as a shocker for my wife Lin-Wen and me, as we just went to see John in Santa Margarita (our fourth visit to his hideout) last year and he looked and sounded great, in fact, he proudly told us he had had no health issues except decaying bones and joints. Attached please find a photo of John and me taken on 4/4/2017 in his house.

At almost 92, he looked marvelous, didn’t he? Although he needed a walker to move around the house and a part-time helper to take him places, he was in good spirit, he eagerly showed us new things in and around his hideout and articulated his life in and around it. He talked about Eleanor, with tears in his eyes as always, about some of his children briefly, his early-year life and work, including skipping five grades when he was young. He also talked about many of his PhD students and some of his PhD. students’ PhD students. He volunteered his unfiltered opinion on everyone and in particular he whispered to my wife that I am “an odd ball” to which my wife strongly agreed. He also offered his very interesting political views with refreshing insights. He was humorous and his mind was very sharp indeed. Hours later, he apparently didn’t want to see us leave, so we took him to his favorite Mexican restaurant in town and ate a late lunch with him before we reluctantly said good-bye. All these still feel like yesterday – hard for us to accept the news that he is no longer with us…

Also attached is a photo of John sitting in his machine shop showing us how he made his own bullets for his shot guns. This photo is dated 6/28/2013, we have many other pictures and videos too. He claimed his own bullets shot more accurately and since we didn’t know much about guns, he gave us a good thorough lecture all about guns. He could move around with a cane then and he was still able to shoot targets.

John has accomplished so much and influenced and touched so many tremendously that we should celebrate his life while mourning his passing.

Best regards,
Chung-Chieh Lee

Prof. Chung-Chieh Lee’s Email. Oct. 23, 2018.

Dear Hisashi,

Attached please find four additional photos and two short videos (links below) of John. I had to skip most in our collection as they contain too much Lee family. The 1997 video was digitized from its original analog version taken before the era of digital photography.

These were recorded during our family’s visit to John and Eleanor in the summer of 1997 and our visit to John in the summer of 2013. In our 1997 visit, John and Eleanor were the happiest retired couple, living in a 100-acre dream land amongst rolling hills of central California away from humanity. As you can see in the video and the photo extracted from it, John wore a sport T-shirt and a stylish flowered cap – very relaxed, very happy and hospitable. Our whole family of six were there; the youngest (Mack) – crying baby in the video – was one-year old then, who now has just graduated from Princeton (CS major) this past June.

In our 2013 visit, John had lost Eleanor (in 2011). Only my wife, I, and Mack were present. I picked the video in which John showed us how to make a shotgun bullet for his target shooting. I consider this video precious because it brought back the memory of John’s remarkable teaching style in and out of classroom.

Please feel free to choose the ones you find interesting and suitable to share. Please let me know if you have any questions.

Best regards,

Sharon Thomas Miller
(John’s eldest daughter)
A note attached to the family photos she kindly shared with us.

My father taught all of us, boys and girls, to use tools at an early age. We were all expected to be able to hammer a nail, drill holes to fit screw sizes, measure and cut wood with a saw. We couldn’t get a driver’s license until we could change a tire and check the oil, and add water to the radiator of the car if it was needed. I have always been very grateful for these life skills. He was always the teacher, valuing education and thriftiness, and above all else, common sense.

I have been making photo albums for my grandchildren and have collected and inherited many photos. They will never know my father except through this saga in pictures and documents. The enclosed photos are for you to decide what you would like to use. Don’t feel that you have to use any or all of them. Pick and choose. There is a timeline of my father’s life done by one of his sisters children (my cousin). She has done a lot of research on our families. Again, use what you would like. Some of the information is repetitive. These are all copies of my material and you need not return the flash drive. I will include the memories that you have shared in those albums. Thank you. My children and grandchildren will have some idea of their grandfather.

Sharon Miller

Sharon Miller’s Email, Nov. 11, 2018 in response to my questions about some of the photos she had sent to me.

I think the above photo – Homer (John’s grandfather), John B. Thomas (10 years old), Henrietta (grandmother), Lenna (mother), Doris (sister), Gladys (aunt) — was taken in 1935 on the Gettysburg battlefield. The marker in the background would describe whatever battle took place there. I think that my father got his love of history from his grandfather. We always went to that battlefield on the way to my grandmother’s house.

We moved to California when I was six, my sister, Bronwyn, was four and my brother, Andrew, was two. We took the train and had a compartment where we slept. We arrived in California and I thought it was the most awful place in the world. It was September and everything was brown. We had come from Maryland, on a farm, surrounded by green fields and nearby woods. I’m afraid that I have never really like California since that day! Some traumas, we never get over.

Thank you for your interest in my father’s life. He always genuinely liked his graduate students and talked about you.

Sharon Miller

Mimi Schwartz
(Writer, wife of the late Prof. Stuart C. Schwartz)

In 1966, I came to visit Princeton after Stu had expressed great interest in an assistant professor position in EE—and I met John Thomas. Stu, who visited first, had been hooked by this man, and so was I. John was so real, so willing to listen and give good advice, so unpretentious in a centuries-old university full of elite tradition. John seemed able to bridge the gap between the best of what was and what could be—and did so with integrity, caring, wisdom, savvy, and a commitment to excellence.

Our first impressions in 1966 continued for the next fifty years. John was special. He made EE and the E Quad special, and when I met him for lunch, a month before he died, John was still special. He had recently moved in with his daughter Gailyn, and she happened to live next door to friends of mine. So John and I reconnected over lunch in a nearby restaurant. Though physically frail and in need of full-time help, John still had that “John-twinkle” in his eyes; he had that same astuteness, the same intense interest in people and in the world; the same sass, and the same savvy. It was a lovely afternoon, which I will keep in my heart for a very dear man.

Mimi Schwartz

Randall S. Thomas
(John’s younger son)

In terms of their lives, my parents lives in retirement were quite settled.  For the first fifteen years (1990-2005) they lived on their California property most of the year and did some minor travelling, especially my mother.  She would visit the family members around the country and sometimes we would come to California.  She taught Sunday school at the local church.  My dad spent a lot of time keeping up the property (60 acres in one track and another 30 acres in an adjoining track).  He liked to spend time shooting his shotgun and rifles every day.  He enjoyed visitors very much and they socialized with the neighbors quite a bit.

Once my mother started to lose her short-term memory, things changed.  She could no longer travel by herself and he spent more and more of this time taking care of her.  They had a peaceful if somewhat closed off life with the two of them spending almost all of their time together.  My sister Bonnie moved out to live in a small house on their California property to help them get by.  My Dad was still very active outdoors and had some visitors. He continued to shoot his guns every day.

My mother passed away in 2011. My father had a difficult time getting over it.  He really struggled with his life from that point on. We hired some local health workers to spend time with him part time and help him with his daily care. His physical condition started to decline slowly and it became harder for him to manage things.  While my sister Bonnie was close by, and he continued to have a visitors, by May of 2018 he could no longer live on his own.  We moved him to New Hampshire to live with another one of my sisters, Gailyn, who is a doctor and more able to arrange for his care. That is where he died. You have his obituary which gives you the information about his passing away.

It is hard to summarize 28 years (after his retirement from Princeton) in a few paragraphs.  If you have any specific questions, or would like me to read your draft of your part of the document, please just let me know.

Randall S. Thomas
John S. Beasley II Professor of Law and Business
Vanderbilt Law School
131 21st Ave. South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181

Dag Bjarne Tjøstheim *74
(Prof. University of Bergen, Norway)

Oct. 23, 2018

Dear Randall,

I was very sorry to hear that your father John Thomas has passed away. Please accept my condolences.

I was a PhD student at Princeton 1971-1974. I was not in the EE-Department but rather in Applied Mathematics. But I followed some of John’s courses, and asked if he would agree to act as my thesis supervisor.

As a supervisor and as a person, he has meant very much to me. I appreciated his down-to-earth view of science and life. Many times I have cited his words of wisdom when I have supervised my own students. For example, on writing a thesis or a paper: Just start writing a first draft quickly. Do not concern yourself too much about style and notation. Moreover, if you get a rejection, do not worry. All people get rejections, they just don’t tell about it. John believed in me, and he taught me how important it is to encourage your students, and tell that thesis work inevitably has both its ups and downs. And concentrate on essentials. Do not worry too much about details and notation.

I have had a reasonably successful research career here in Norway, and I have often thought that I was lucky to have John as a supervisor at the very start of my career.> Best regards,

PS. We also met your mother at the Princeton Presbyterian Church in Princeton. She was involved in the Sunday School there, and our oldest boy attended while we went to service.

Peter Willett *86

Oct. 27, 2018

(An excerpt from his Editorial of the November 2018 issue of AESS (Aerospace and Electronics Engineers Society) which he serves as Editor.)

Before I introduce our articles, please let me note, with sadness, the passing of my Ph.D. advisor, John B. Thomas. He was a wonderful person – born to a hard-working farm family in Appalachia, was in the US Army in WW2 and thereafter worked his way to a Bachelor’s degree at Gettysburg College. Following that, he had a highly-paid position at industry, but nonetheless thought he could contribute more as a professor, and betook himself, his wife Eleanor and his young family to Stanford for a Ph.D. He taught at Princeton from 1955 to 1990. I owe him much, and many (among them more than 40 Ph.D. advisees) can say the same. Please see for his obituary. He is – and I’ll confess not knowing exactly what this means but it sounds really cool and completely appropriate for him – an 8th descendant of C. F. Gauss.[1]

1. Footnote by Hisashi Kobayashi: If we trace up the mathematics genealogy project page of John B. Thomas we will reach after 8 steps (with a critical amendment) to Carl Friedrich Gauss who had 15 doctoral students and have 93632 descendants as of Sept 25, 2019. For further details see the last two pages of my article Academic Genealogy of Shoshichi Kobayashi

Eugene Wong *59

Professor Thomas was one of the last of America’s greatest generation. He endured the hardships of a depression youth, enlisted while still in his teens, and returned from the War to help build the greatest nation on earth.

By the early 1950’s, he was a fast-rising industrial executive. But being a captain of industry was not his goal. So he packed his growing family off to Stanford, obtained his Ph.D. under the guidance of Willis Harmon, and began a long and distinguished teaching career at Princeton in 1955.

I returned to Princeton for my graduate studies in 1956, and became John’s first Ph.D. student. He went on to have many more Ph.D. students in his career. But as the first, I felt a special kinship and warmth in our relationship. I learned many things from him: the joy of discovery, the importance of discipline in research, and the need to publish one’s work regularly. I too became a professor of electrical engineering. What I learned from him did much to shape my own career.

John’s influence on my life transcended professional and technical matters. More than anyone I have known, he embodied good old-fashioned American values: hard work, honesty, fairness, love of family and country, and a special pride in the independence that comes from self-reliance. For him no car was ever beyond repair, if he could only have the tools to machine the parts that were no longer obtainable.

Raised on a hardscrabble farm in central Pennsylvania by a grandfather he adored, he never left his origin far behind. He loved beer, guns, red meat and football, in no particular order. There was more than a bit of redneck and curmudgeon in him. His kindness to his students did not extend to the upper strata of the establishment. The arrogant snobbery of academics, in particular, did not escape his contempt and scorn.

He and Eleanor had a long and happy retirement in the hills of Central California. Many of his former students visited them there, and I did so on three occasions. I think the brown scrub covered hills reminded him of the farm of his childhood and he enjoyed the open spaces around him that he missed so much in the urban Northeast.

I had a long phone call with him just after the past Christmas. John was in a happy mood. He was particularly delighted that he was being cared for by two cheerful twenty-year-old girls from a nearby town. They were bringing a special sparkle to his life. Our conversation evolved into a discussion of the state of American politics. He said that the institutions of the country were strong and no one person like Trump could do them any lasting damage. As usual, he was right.