Attention Surplus

H amden resident John Thomas’s second-grade teacher was one of the first people who really “got” him. At a time before the diagnosis of ADHD existed, she let him stand up in the classroom to study because he couldn’t sit still. That easily distractible boy is, five decades later, a law professor at Quinnipiac University as well as a journalist, fingerstyle guitarist, author, oral historian and nonprofit founder who’s always a step ahead of himself. “I’m happiest when I have too much to do,” Thomas says, “and the truth is anytime I’m working on one project, I’m thinking about the next one.”

As we talk on Zoom, a virtual screen behind Thomas loops a video of birds fluttering around a feeder in his backyard, as if to underscore our conversation about his own flitting from one pursuit to the next. His life looked like an unfocused jumble even to Thomas himself until, in his mid-50s, he wrote his book Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII (2012). For the first time, he says, “everything came together”: the academic and the popular, the history and the music and the chance to sit down with people and hear their stories.

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It began when Thomas stumbled across a 1944 photograph of 70 women in front of the Gibson Guitar Company factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He couldn’t stop thinking about it: What were all those women doing at Gibson during a time when, supposedly, no guitars were being manufactured? Who were they, and what was their story? “Whenever I reached a difficult point in a writing project or struggled to understand a court opinion that I would soon be teaching, my attention would wander to that photograph,” Thomas wrote on the book’s website. In the process of doing research for a freelance article, he eventually discovered some answers.

When most of Gibson’s men were moved over to war production efforts, the company quietly hired dozens of women to take their place. Those women produced guitars that are “more sophisticated, more refined than the predecessors and successors that men built,” Thomas says. He did the research that backs up that claim, using x-ray equipment and taking precise measurements of many original Gibson guitars. (His personal collection includes four World War II Banner Gibsons.) At the same time, Thomas went in search of the women in the photograph. Eventually, he found 12 of them and visited them to record their stories, which are compiled as part of Kalamazoo Gals. The book has now been optioned for film, and pre-production is moving forward.

So is Thomas. After Kalamazoo Gals, he took on another oral history project closer to home—not in Connecticut but rather in southern Arizona, where he grew up in Cochise County, just two miles from the Mexico border. Thomas’s grandmother was the last homesteader in the area. “It didn’t occur to me until way later in life that as homesteaders, what happened was the federal government took the land from natives and gave it for free to white people,” Thomas says, adding he’s embarrassed it took him so long to understand his family’s rural white privilege. “Living within a stone’s throw of an Indian reservation, standing on land where there are hundreds of burial mounds for natives there, my relatives [who still live on the ranch] complain about people who enter without documentation,” Thomas says. “How did we get here?”

He sought to answer that question by again collecting oral histories, this time from ranchers living on both sides of the border. The result was One Hundred Years of Solitude, Struggle, and Violence along the US/Mexico Border: An Oral History (2017). “During my childhood, there was no border such as we would recognize today,” Thomas wrote on that book’s website. “We crossed from Douglas, Arizona, to Agua Prieta, Sonora, with little thought and certainly no paperwork. Everyone spoke both languages; we were distinguishable primarily by our preferred language. My family bought building supplies, [food staples], liquor, and, often, medicines in Mexico where prices were cheaper and good restaurants plentiful.” Thomas has a contract for one followup book and plans for a third involving visits to all 48 of the border’s official entry points. His interest in immigration at the southern border has also led to another project: interviewing refugees around the world, including here in New Haven. His wife, Dorothy Stubbe, a child psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center, is his co-author, bringing a medical lens to the forthcoming Child Refugees—Exploring Public Health, Mental Health, Epigenetic, Neurological and Legal Needs.

Even as we speak, hints of yet another project surface, having to do with cancer, COVID-19 and the health care system. Late last winter, suspicious of elevated PSA levels in a blood test that his doctor’s office had reported as normal, Thomas was following up on a possible diagnosis of prostate cancer when he fell ill with COVID. Though never hospitalized, he was sick for three months before he could finally get a biopsy, confirming his cancer fears. “If you decide to get cancer, don’t do it during a pandemic,” he jokes. Surgery followed in July. Then, late in the year, so did another bout with COVID. Thomas says he’s learned how broken America’s healthcare system is. “I’m a person who has been teaching health law… and I can’t figure it out,” he says. “I’m thinking, What if [English] wasn’t my first language? What if I feel like I’m not sophisticated enough to push doctors to ask questions?” He’ll be speaking on the topic this spring.

Thomas, it seems, has learned much of what he knows from experience and on the fly. As a guitarist, he’s entirely self-taught. He used to bring home a new LP and weight the stylus with quarters to slow it down so he could learn to play along. Likewise, he helped found his first nonprofit in 2004—The Diaper Bank of Connecticut—after his friend Joanne Goldblum realized a lack of clean diapers was leading to a host of problems for her clients with infants and small children. “I said, ‘I got no idea how to do that, but I’ll figure it out, and I’ll do it for free,’” Thomas says. He reckons he’s now helped launch nearly 20 nonprofits, including The Buddy Holly Educational Foundation, for which he’s recruited a number of celebrity ambassadors, all of whom were loaned replicas of Buddy Holly’s Gibson J-45, built with one fret each from the original guitar.

All of the work combined with health issues has made for a heavy load. Thomas isn’t one to hit the brakes, but he has taken his foot off the gas of late. “I’m just not as strong as I thought,” he says, “and I feel guilty about it, but I just wanted to step back and breathe in some beauty.”

That beauty includes another passion project about guitars and a lot of fingerpicking. But even a “step back” doesn’t mean sitting still. Thomas’s fleet fingers keep on moving, and it seems only a matter of time before the rest of him catches up.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image provided courtesy of John Thomas.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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