Joseph Horn Thomas is the son of the late Milton R. Thomas and the late Frankye Cobb Thomas. Joe was born in Sarasota, Florida, on Tuesday, September 24, 1940. His first memories were of the family’s log ranch house outside Myakka City. He attended school through the 5th grade in Sarasota and moved to LaBelle on Tuesday, August 14, 1951 remembering the exact date because it was his older brother Ben’s 18th birthday. He graduated from LaBelle High School, where he had been a member of the band, in 1958. He attended the University of Florida, was a member of the Gator Band and Kappa Kappa Psi, the Intercollegiate Band Honorary Fraternity, and received his BA in History in 1962. He enlisted in the United States Army Reserve following graduation, was the honor graduate of Fort Jackson’s Basic Army Administration Class 20-63, and was assigned to work with the staff of Swift Strike 3, joint Army and Air Force Maneuvers in North and South Carolina and Georgia. He later taught school in Jacksonville before returning to LaBelle in the fall of 1967 to be with his ailing parents.
He taught a variety of subjects including basic 7th and 8th grade Math, Geography, 8th and 11th grade U S History, World History, Americanism vs. Communism and Driver Education at LaBelle Jr.-Sr. High School. He earned the Master of Arts in Teaching with a major in Modern European History from the University of Florida in 1969.
Joe joined the LaBelle Jaycees shortly after returning to LaBelle and became active in the Jaycees serving over the years as secretary, vice president, three terms as president as well as three terms as Swamp Festival Committee Chairman as the festival was originally an annual Jaycee Community Service project, he also served as a District and Regional officer in the Florida Jaycees and was honored by the LaBelle Jaycees by being named JCI Senator #22958.
Joe was also active in the LaBelle Fine Art League and served one term as president as well as winning Best of Show in a juried art show. He served one term on the LaBelle City Commission and was also active in the Hendry County Democratic Committee. He was also an active member of the Calusa Valley Historical Society and served as its president. He became active in the Sons of the American Legion and later joined the American Legion itself when it was determined his military service was within a period of membership qualification. He was Dana-Howard-Weekley American Legion Post 130 Adjutant under three different commanders before becoming Post Commander in 1990 and serving two full terms some 60 years after his father, Milt Thomas, had served two terms as Sarasota Bay Post 30’s commander.
In the 1990s, Joe worked with several state agencies including HRS, DCF, ACHA, and Corrections. It was at this time that he became active with the Firehouse Players and appeared in a number of productions as well as directing several plays over the years. He was transferred to Miami and also to Gainesville but still considered LaBelle home and even commuted from Miami almost daily to take part in one play, The Spiral Staircase, at LaBelle’s Firehouse Theatre. Joe was employed by Centro Campesino Farmworker Center in Florida City as lead GED teacher in its YouthBuild USA program, where he had his first experiences in grant writing, and was pleasantly surprised to see that one of his former students at LaBelle Jr.-Sr. High School, Chris Barraza, had become the community organization’s leading construction supervisor.
Joe finally returned to LaBelle full time in 2005 and continued volunteering with the Firehouse Theatre and also became an adjunct history professor at Edison State College, now FSW State College, where he taught at the main campus in Fort Myers, the Punta Gorda Campus and at LaBelle’s Hendry-Glades Center. He became advisor to Phi Theta Kappa, the International Honorary Society of the Community College, at the Fort Myers Campus, and was asked by Dr. Robert Jones to help establish a Phi Theta Kappa Chapter at Hendry-Glades.
Joe was finally able to convince the college administration to offer courses in Florida History and did teach Florida History at both the Charlotte Campus in Punta Gorda and at Hendry-Glades Center here in LaBelle.
Joe became active in the LaBelle Heritage Museum and has served as its president for the past seven years. He was instrumental in getting a State Historic Preservation Grant to move the museum’s 1905 Akin-Rider House and Judge Rider’s 1935 Law Office to the Downtown LaBelle Historic District to join the 1911 William Hardy Poole Store in the creation of a LaBelle Heritage Museum Complex. More recently, he was responsible for the $228,000 Historic Preservation Grant that will be used to rehabilitate the Poole Store, stabilizing its foundation, adding a new roof, repairing and replacing termite damage done to non-historic parts of the building, retrofitting windows and exterior doors, and providing ADA approved handicap access to both the downstairs as well as to the second floor.
Joe was surprised to be told he had been chosen as Grand Marshall for the 51st Annual Swamp Cabbage Festival, saying he knew he was being nominated but figured it would be like the other times over the past 30 years or so he knew he had been nominated. He said he was reminded of the old Listerine advertisement “Often a Bridesmaid but Never a Bride” and figured it applied to him! There have been several occasions of fathers and sons being selected Grand Marshalls of the Swamp Cabbage Festival, but Joe and his late mother Frankye Cobb Thomas, who was 1974’s Grand Marshall, are the first mother son duo to be so honored. Joe says he will try to live up to this honor and see what he can do to help LaBelle become an even better place to call home than it has been over the almost 66 years since he first moved here.