Eulogy at James Thomas’ funeral by Margie Worthington-Smith, business colleague and friend.
My dear friend and work partner – I am here to honour you and to tell all these hundreds, if not thousands of people of the legacy you have left behind… to give them some idea of how significant you were and how the world is a better place because of you having been here.
Recently you worked on a definition of someone who is a high impact leader – someone with significance. Your own words were that significance is a quality worthy of attention – well you certainly have ours!
I am Margie Worthington-Smith and I have known James and Col since the late 1970s. We had some fun times living together in the 1980s – not least of which included the birth of Sarah into our community… and then sharing the long anticipation of Julie 8 years later – and it was certainly worth the wait! In 1988 James and I began working together – and we have been business partners in various forms ever since.
Have you ever been faced with a blank page – and been asked to create something – from nothing? I have – and it is daunting. Well not for James. This was where he was in his element. James’ forte was seeing a problem and developing a zero-based solution. He was truly brilliant. What he was not so brilliant at was (for him) the tedious detail of the follow through. In fact – in a recent Strengths Test assessment he did, it showed that James had no Execution strengths whatsoever – hardly a surprise result to those who know him well.
However, being the person he was, he surrounded himself with people who became infected by his enthusiasm and brilliance. These people included Colleen, me, Sue, Hilary, Lorna, Chris, Pug, Barry, Rob, Bart, Nick, Janice, Nicky, Landy – the list is endless. Each of these people will have their own stories to tell of their frustrations with James. But each of these people is here today. This is because we all knew that James was a visionary and there is something very compelling about working with someone who is painting a masterpiece on the blank page – and one that will endure forever.
James’ work was motivated by his own inherent strengths coupled with his deep faith and highly developed empathy for others. These strengths included his remarkable strategic abilities. He was able to see the unseen, and to constantly challenge the way things were done. In a moment I will give you some examples of just how he did this.
For James the future was where it was at – he was a possibility thinker – always considering what tomorrow may bring. Interestingly, notwithstanding James’ gentle-giant-like nature, he was also extremely commanding. He had enormous presence, control and decisiveness. When James believed in his cause, dream or idea – he was totally unintimidated.
One of the most endearing of James’ strengths was his ability to see value in everyone. He was totally non-judgemental – being so totally secure in his own beliefs that he was completely unthreatened by the beliefs or non-beliefs of others. He was as comfortable amongst Christians as he was amongst those with no faith at all. His was a big worldview. All his work was motivated by his need to find a better way – to change the way we do things – for the betterment of those who needed assistance.
James was an originator and all that he embarked upon was in order to make the world a better place. It helped that he was a genius whose conceptual ability meant that he could grasp (or originate) a concept or idea quickly, focus intensely and be incredibly productive and efficient – using all of that phenomenal bandwidth to produce spurts of extraordinary creativity in an amazingly short time. I experienced how he mastered a complex and abstract programming language (Macromedia Director to be exact) overnight to produce his own animation; and how, when Excel was just a new programme, he became a whizz at it instantly. When James was focussed and interested in an idea he was unstoppable – for him nothing was impossible and no barrier (not even a new computer language) was insurmountable.
Although James was in demand in later life – he did not start out that way. In fact when we lived together in Brendan House behind Christ Church around 1983, James was unemployed. He knew first hand what it meant to be unwanted and worthless. I well recall the file of application letters he sent out and how he handled the rejections. But James was not one to need to be validated by others – he went out and made his own contribution. This was to be the start of his incredibly impactful development career – and in the end James was in demand in South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia and Liberia to name some of the countries where he has left his mark.
It was James’ focus and passion for the greater good that lead to his vast productivity and sustainable contribution in the development sectors and it was education and entrepreneurship that really enthused him. I wish I had time – I would read you a document I found recently that he wrote – the motivation for why he started the Triple Trust Organisation in 1988. He was passionate about justice and felt indignant that people should be unemployed. Training people in a skill to run a business kept him awake at night designing training programmes. Sheepskin slippers, flower arranging, sewing, knitting, (did you know that he was and excellent seamstress/ster?) furniture making, leathermaking, butchery – just to name a few courses that James designed. During his time, James grew the Triple Trust from conception to a staff of 80 people with an impact on 10s of thousands of people country wide – and it was of course James who escorted Queen Elizabeth when she came to inspect his work!
It was James’ creative brilliance that conceived the internationally successful BEST Game. This was a business simulation tool, developed at our holiday house at the mouth of the Breede River in 1991, that has been described as simply brilliant and brilliantly simple and that has won various development innovation awards and accolades. (Mail and Guardian Investing in the Future award). It has been licensed worldwide, is used in over 75 countries and has been translated into 18 languages.
To illustrate both an admirable and amusing quirk of James’ and the impact of his genius let me tell you this: James had a surprisingly amazing ability with numbers. With little or no research, he was able to pull a number out of the air – and be remarkably accurate – much to the frustration of many beanies with whom he worked. He did however love to extrapolate numbers… and so I have to share with you this information relating to the BEST Game – James called me recently to say that he had been trolling the Internet (as he did often) and he had looked up the ILO (one of the licensed users of the BEST Game) to see what impact they had made. Here is what he told me: “In China there are 86 Master Trainers of the BEST Game. They have trained 1100 trainers and these trainers have reached 4.5 million learners. The Chinese government says that 85% of these have started businesses employing on average 5 people each. That makes 11.2 million Chinese impacted by the activation of a need in Khayelitsha! James just loved that!!
One of the reasons I will miss James is because there was little that James did not know about any topic. He was a veritable encyclopaedia of anything. If you wanted a particular fabric for a school play or a certain type of trailer to carry an odd load – James was your man. I know that there are numerous people here who think that James was an expert in their area of interest – well not just your area – but yours and yours and yours. He was absolutely unbelievable in his ability to recall useless – and useful – information.
And so knowing this it won’t surprise you to hear that James was also an expert in Agriculture. Following the success of the BEST Game, James was approached to develop a tool to assist emerging farmers to be commercially sustainable. This lead to the development of yet another incredibly innovative simulation tool to teach people how to farm. Harvest of Hope was an off-shoot of this and it was James’ idea to build the bridges between Cape Town communities by connecting Southern Suburb mums with Philippi farmers – creating a system to be able to buy fresh veggies from schools delivered by the Philippi farmers – James just loved a win-win. This work in agriculture lead to his work in Kenya where he had been visiting recently.
James knew and was passionate about better housing through the Home at Last project – you may recall the one double story house amongst the shacks on the way to the airport – well that was James. He was concerned for health and worked for Unicef and Hope Hiv in various countries.
James saw the future for SA online marketing long before it became trendy – going to Washington DC and winning the World Bank Development Marketplace award (30 entrants out of 2400) for the Buy South Africa Online.com concept.
So you can imagine that working for James could have its challenges and keeping him focussed was one such challenge. A quick story to illustrate this… In 1990 (just a few years after the start of the TTO – when we were really focussing our attention on getting this fledgling NGO off the ground), James asked me to join him in a meeting to meet “this really interesting guy with a really interesting concept”. Great – is he a potential funder – said I? No, says James, he has a brilliant idea for teaching literacy. Literacy says I? Hmmm, James, I think we do job creation remember?!! I’m not coming. Well, of course I did go – and James was right it was a brilliant idea and yes, James veered his attention to developing the highly successful BrandKnew Literacy programme displaying yet again that if he was passionate he could be totally focussed and extraordinarily productive.
James adored young people. He celebrated their potential and found endless opportunities for many many young people to get ahead. So he was an obvious person to help develop the materials for the Activate Leadership project which is currently reaching 1000s of young people countrywide.
James developed a credit and savings programme for World Vision called Save Power; he worked for the South African Institute for Entrepreneurship developing entrepreneurship curricula for schools and youth leadership programmes for Love Life; he did a stint at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation recently developing entrepreneurship mindset curricula; he developed a tourism course and a careers development programme – the list is endless.
Recently James and I went full circle and began working again together – just the two of us. It was wonderful – we were back to those heady days of the blank sheet of paper… During this time we put together a CV of the projects that we had done together and it was such a fun time – reminiscing about various humorous experiences over the years.
But as always James was looking forwards – imagining what the world could be – should be. He was fascinated by the possibilities of the Internet and how this could influence learning. He had begun again to predict the future – as he had done so often before.
And so to sum up and illustrate the man that he was, I want to end by sharing something that James wrote during the State of Emergency in 1986. Those of you who are younger will not really understand the significance of the ability that James had at that time to imagine the future. Those of you who are older may have forgotten how dark those days were during the height of Apartheid – and how little hope we had at times…
But James’ incredibly positive mindset and phenomenal ability to piece together the potential for something better led him to write a document which he called “Apartheid’s Wake”. In it he predicted 25 events that sum up his vision for the future (I won’t share them all because of time). I quote verbatim:
- The State of Emergency would be lifted (when many were emigrating because of their lack of belief that it would be)
- The Last detainees are released (15 Jails close) – ok that’s his optimism right there
- Tricameral parliament is scrapped at last
- Emotional scenes as mothers embrace returning exiles
- Volunteer army replaces conscription (this seemed impossible at the time!)
- Defence spending is slashed from 19% to 4%
- Group Areas repeal causes very few racial incidents
- Tourism overtakes mining as biggest growth industry
- British Royal Family and American president attend opening festivities
- Tutu and Mandela return from successful “re-investment” tour of the USA
- Kodak comes back
- GM launches exciting new local range
- Country’s top sales of electrical appliances recorded in electrified Khayelitsha
- Jubilant Springbok contingent returns with 15 Olympic golds
- Rave reviews from Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera
- BBC programmes predominate on channels 6 and 7
- Springsteen’s additional shows sell-out at the Good Hope Centre and Ellis Park.
And so in ending I want to read what this wonderful visionary remarkable significant commanding loving lovable man ended his vision with. He concluded:
“The Orange river continues to snake lazily to the sea. The sun rises every morning over the Highveld – as usual. The tablecloth still pours over Table Mountain as it has done since long before Jan van Riebeeck’s time.
Somewhere, deep within, the warm heart of Africa sighs, is still. And then sighs deeply again.
The pain is gone
A radiant, unsupressible smile steals across the face of the land.
Yes, we can live again.”
Thank you James