Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 30, 2013

SALISBURY — Donna Taylor Thomas seems too young to retire, but not too young to receive one of the state’s highest civilian honors — the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

Thomas’ coworkers at the Children’s Development Services Agency surprised her recently with the framed certificate, which carries the signature of former Gov. Bev Perdue.

For Thomas, the honor celebrates her 32 years as a state employee — first as a special education teacher in Salisbury City Schools and, for the past 25 years, with the CDSA.

Since 2008, Thomas has supervised CDSA’s Salisbury satellite office at Corporate Square off North Main Street.

The agency’s regional office for five counties, including Rowan, is based in Concord and part of the Early Intervention Branch of the Women’s and Children’s Health Section of the N.C. Division of Public Health.

The CDSA focuses on children from birth to age 3 in Cabarrus, Rowan, Union, Iredell and Stanly counties and administers the N.C. Early Intervention “Together We Grow” program.

The state-funded agency helps to identify children who are developmentally delayed or have an established condition. With important input from parents, staff members determine areas of development needing attention and link families to resources in the community.

“It has been very rewarding,” Thomas says of her work with parents, children and staff members through the years.

When Thomas, 53, announced she was seriously considering retirement, her coworkers joked that maybe she would be deserving of a “Salisbury Pine Cone Award.”

“OK,” Thomas laughed, “I’m deserving of that.”

She didn’t realize her colleagues would be nominating her for the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

Established in the 1960s, the award goes to N.C. residents in recognition of a proven record of service or other special achievement.

Besides receiving a certificate from the governor, the recipient also is given the privilege of proposing, at any time, the N.C. Toast (see box).

Thomas grew up on Ellis Street in Salisbury as one of five children. Her late father worked as a chemical sales representative, while her mother, Rosemary Johnson, is a retired and well-known art teacher.

Teachers who inspired her early on, Thomas says, included her mother, Pat Epting in kindergarten, Carolyn Hurley in first grade, Kay Wilson and Oliver Hoffner at Knox Junior High, Raemi Evans and Georgia McCorkle at Salisbury High and Norman Goldman, who was a mentor during her student teaching.

Thomas attended Meredith College before transferring to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education.

Thomas also earned certificates in behavioral and learning disabilities.

She started work at Wiley Elementary School as a special education teacher, then went on to Overton Elementary and Knox Middle School.

As things go in a small town, Thomas found herself working for men who were her principals when she was in school, including Paul Goble, Frank Shaver and Ralph Bostian.

By 25, she was married to her junior high sweetheart, Steve Thomas; had earned her degrees; was teaching school; and had a son.

Her decision to leave public schools sort of blind-sided her.

Thomas loved her students, teaching and her coworkers, but the challenging behavioral problems and what she considered restraints on teachers and administration in effective discipline became worrisome to the young teacher.

“It was fate — one of those horrible days,” she says, looking back.

Thomas had been dealing with a difficult behavioral problem and felt as though she were at her wit’s end.

Thomas noticed the posting of a job for a educational diagnostician in Concord, but on calling, was told the position had been filled.

Nonetheless, the Children’s Developmental Evaluation Center’s director asked her in for an interview, and she was hired.

So in 1987, Thomas began extensive travels, conducting in-field evaluations of school-age kids throughout the center’s five-county region. She loved the job, and saw the difference she could make identifying developmental obstacles students were facing and guiding parents to resources that could help.

Later, her agency’s efforts would turn the focus to infants, and the DEC became the CDSA.

The Thomases moved from Concord back to Donna’s native Salisbury in 2008 when the satellite office was opened. They immediately took on the steady renovations of an old home on Boyden Road.

Donna Thomas says she recently was approached by the mother of one of the first families she assisted. The woman’s daughters faced multiple disabilities, and she thanked Thomas for her help many years ago and relayed what it had meant toward their development into adulthood.

“That, to me, is rewarding,” Thomas says. “Let’s face it, public servants don’t get much praise.”

Steve and Donna Thomas have three boys: Dallas and Taylor, both in Wilmington, and Austin in Atlanta.

With the additional time she has in retirement, Donna plans to visit the boys regularly. She says she hopes they don’t take out restraining orders on her.

Steve Thomas also is nervous about his wife’s retirement and the additional projects Donna will find to do with the house.

Donna hopes retirement gives her time for attending extra cooking classes and traveling with Steve.

“I’m excited about where God is taking me,” she says. “I’m a work in progress.”

  Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.