John E. “Jack” Thomas ’39
John E. “Jack” Thomas was born in New Jersey in 1923 before his family moved to Brooklyn, New York. When Jack was just 8 years old, he was left without parents. Several years later, after learning about new opportunities in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Jack and his two brothers enrolled at Hershey Industrial School, now known as Milton Hershey School. Spending many years as a part of the school’s program, Jack graduated from high school in 1939, with the unique opportunity to receive his diploma from famous chocolatier and MHS founder, Milton S. Hershey.
After his graduation, he attended Hershey Junior College before transferring to Lafayette College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1943. Upon his graduation, he began a position with Esso Chemical Company, which is now known as Exxon. While his career did not begin as he had originally anticipated, he was able to take his role to new heights by serving as the Engineering Officer on Landing Ship Tanks for three years in the Pacific during World War II. As the war ended, Jack returned to his role at Exxon, ready to learn and tackle new challenges. During his career with Exxon—which included graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin—he spent his time on 13 different assignments, ranging from product development, research, technical service, and marketing.
His job allowed him to travel the world and share his work and love of learning with the communities he lived and his family, which grew to include his wife Jean, daughter Barbara, and son David. Jean served as an educator and found a passion for teaching children to be their greatest selves.
Upon retirement, Jack and Jean moved to Florida, ready to enjoy time in the Sunshine State. Somewhere along the way, Jack selflessly decided to donate money to the Foundation for Lee County Public Schools’ Take Stock in Children program, which gives opportunities to students in need—much like the opportunities he was granted at MHS. His charitable contributions to the program were only magnified once he anonymously donated $1.6 million to the Foundation after passing away in September 2022—at 99-years-old.
While we cannot be certain of what Jack was motivated by in his giving, we can imagine that he was greatly impacted by his time as a student at Hershey Industrial School, seeing firsthand the impact that giving of this nature can have on a child’s life. Mr. Hershey once thought that if the school served just 100 boys, it would be considered a success. Jack Thomas’ giving alone has broadened that impact to include hundreds more students who may never travel to Hershey, Pa, but through the power of education, will forever be a part of Mr. Hershey’s life-changing legacy.