Vietnam War veteran waits 47 years to celebrate SU doctoral degree

Local News

It’s been a moment 47 years in the making for Army Capt. John Thomas.

In the spring of 1969, Thomas finished his biology doctoral requirements at Syracuse University and he was looking forward to receiving his hood like all the other PhD students.

However, his commitment to his country put all plans on hold.

“If you’re not in San Antonio, Texas, on Saturday, on the day after I was actually going to be there, I would be AWOL,” explained Thomas, a Vietnam War veteran, serving in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps. “So, I finished my degree here, and within 30 hours was a captain in the United States Army.”

It was worth the wait.

This time, Thomas, now 74 years old, has his wife Penny, three daughters and four grandsons by his side.

Each of his daughters have been following in his footsteps — entering the fields of medicine and public health.

“If I was in his place, I would have done the same thing,” shared Kerri Simpson of her father. “It was something he just did. Looking back to actually have that culmination of the fact of getting his PhD and getting that hood, I just feel so happy for him and excited that this has actually come to fruition.”

While many things like Syracuse’s weather has not changed, Thomas says the campus looks and feels different.

“There were a lot of military buildings that were still here, not necessarily built by the military but they looked like old housing,” Thomas described. “We had a lot of quonset huts. The bookstore was a wooden building that was just kind of small.”

Some things do stay the same — his love for his family, his country and over the years, passing on knowledge to his own doctoral students at West Virginia University.

“The opportunity I had was to lead and that’s what I have always liked to do,” Thomas said. “Whether it was in a classroom or whether it was in the laboratory or in the military and that’s what I did.”

Thomas led 242 men in Vietnam as an Army captain and over the years he’s taken part in “hooding” more than 1,500 doctoral graduates as a professor.

“Every single one of you, whatever you like on the outside, whatever you were born with, whatever you have become – as far as we all are concerned – your peel will forever be Orange,” said SU Chancellor Kent Syverud to a crowd of more than 5,000 graduates during the university’s 162nd commencement.

Thomas, too, is forever Orange.

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