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Franklin A. Thomas Biography


Philanthropist, administrator, lawyer

Thomas, Franklin A., photograph. © Bettmann/Corbis.

Franklin A. Thomas made a name for himself as an inspiring leader in America. For seventeen years Thomas was president of the Ford Foundation, a vast and self-perpetuating trust originally endowed by car manufacturer Henry Ford and his son Edsel. With a reported $7.7 billion in assets when Thomas resigned his post in 1996, Thomas and his Ford Foundation staff used strategic sums of money—more than $200 million annually—to help needy communities, finance educational and cultural institutions, support civil rights in the United States and around the world, and strengthen and empower policy influencing organizations. Since leaving the Foundation, Thomas has continued to serve in leadership positions in America's largest corporations and has continued to work in philanthropic ventures in South Africa.

Born in 1934 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Thomas is the youngest child of a proud but poverty-wracked West Indian family. When Thomas was just eleven years old, his father, James, a laborer, became disabled and later died. Left to support six children, Thomas's mother, Viola, worked as a housekeeper until World War II when she landed a job as a machinist at American Can. The stoic Viola returned to housekeeping at the end of the war when the availability of returning soldiers allowed manufacturers to again raise racial and gender barriers to hiring.

Despite living in a poor West Indian neighborhood that was riddled with the violence of gang wars, Thomas was raised in a family atmosphere that fostered pride and an upward-looking mindset. "We were taught," he told Ebony, "that there were no limits on what you could do in life except the limits that you set on yourself." Thomas was a good student, a superior basketball player, and a leader in the Concord Baptist Church Boy Scouts. "He was something of a hero in my neighborhood," Dr. Bernard Gifford, who also grew up in "Bed-Stuy," told Black Enterprise. "Teachers held him up as a model because he was a student as well as a basketball player and that was important."

At 6 feet 4 inches in height, Thomas, a star center at Franklin K. Lane High School, was offered basketball scholarships by several major universities. He refused the scholarships and instead—on the advice of his mother who felt that others would question his intelligence if he accepted a sports scholarship—accepted an academic scholarship from Columbia University.

At Columbia, Thomas nevertheless continued his basketball career. He became the first African American to captain an Ivy League basketball team and was twice voted the league's most valuable player. In addition, he became involved with the NAACP's (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) drive to increase black admissions at the university. But what was perhaps most important about his Columbia experience were the relationships he developed with others who would later become movers and shakers in the fields of business, law, and politics.

After graduating in 1956, Thomas took advantage of his ROTC training and did a four-year hitch with the Air Force, where he worked his way up to captain and flew missions as a navigator with the Strategic Air Command. In 1960 he returned to Columbia for his law degree. He opted for a career in law after seeing a con man swindle his mother out of a down payment on a house she wanted to buy.

Upon receiving his law degree in 1963, Thomas moved into a series of high-powered government jobs. He worked as an attorney for the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency, was admitted to the New York State Bar the following year, served as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York from 1964 until 1965, and then worked for three years as New York's deputy police commissioner in charge of legal matters. Asked later how he made the remarkable transition from economic impoverishment to positions of leadership in the legal arena, he told the New York Times Magazine, "I grew up in a family that just assumed that one, you were smart and capable; two, that you were going to work hard, and three, the combination of these two meant that anything was possible."

In 1967 Thomas caught the attention of New York senator Robert Kennedy. Kennedy was looking for ways to improve living conditions in Bedford-Stuyvesant and wanted to create a nonprofit community development agency to raise and coordinate public and private redevelopment funds. To head up the agency, Kennedy sought a "Bed-Stuy" resident. On the advice of staff member and future Black Enterprise publisher Earl Graves, Kennedy met with Thomas. Impressed with the 33-year-old lawyer, in May of that year he appointed Thomas president of the newly created Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation.

Thomas soon acquired the reputation of a man who gets the job done. During his ten years as president, the Restoration Corporation raised some $63 million in public and private funds—including a significant amount from the Ford Foundation. It built three apartment complexes and erected a 200,000 square foot shopping center. It rehabilitated 400 brownstone units, established the Billie Holiday Theater, helped to start or expand 120 businesses in the area, and developed a $21 million mortgage pool. Under Thomas's leadership, the Restoration Corporation lured an IBM facility into the neighborhood, placed 7,000 residents in jobs and helped engender a positive feeling among the neighborhood's residents. Perhaps most importantly, Thomas's Restoration Corporation became a model for the hundreds of community-based redevelopment corporations that would later come into being around the country.

At a Glance …

Born Franklin Augustine Thomas, May 27, 1934, in Brooklyn, NY; son of James (a laborer) and Viola (a housekeeper and machinist; maiden name, Atherley) Thomas; married Dawn Conrada (divorced, 1972); children: Keith, Hillary, Kerrie, Kyle. Education: Columbia University, BA, 1956, LLB, 1963. Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Air Force, Strategic Air Command navigator, 1956-60; became captain.

Career: Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency, New York office, attorney, 1963; Southern District of New York, assistant U.S. attorney, 1964-65; New York City Police Department, deputy police commissioner in charge of legal matters, 1965-67; Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, Brooklyn, president and chief executive officer, 1967-77; attorney in private practice, 1977-79; Ford Foundation, New York City, president, 1979-96; TFF Study Group, consultant, 1996–.

Memberships: Aluminum Company of America, Avaya, CBS Inc., Cummins Engine Co., Inc., Citicorp/Citibank, and Lucent Technologies, board of directors; Study Commission on United States Policy Toward Southern Africa, chairman; Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on South Africa, member, 1985-87; September 11th Fund, chairman.

Awards: Honorary degrees from Yale University, Fordham University, Pratt Institute, Pace University, and Columbia University; Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation, award for contribution to the betterment of urban life, 1974; Columbia University, medal of excellence, 1976; Columbia College, Alexander Hamilton Award, 1983.

During his tenure at Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, Thomas also became well known in public and private circles. CBS, Citicorp/Citibank, AT&T, and the Cummins Engine Company all paid him handsomely to serve on their boards of directors. He was a trustee of the Ford Foundation, and in 1976, then president-elect Jimmy Carter even asked him to serve as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. A flattered Thomas refused, telling Carter that the only federal job he wanted was the one Carter was about to occupy.

Thomas left the Restoration Corporation in 1977, worked in private practice for a time, and for nine months filled in as head of New York's John Hay Whitney Foundation. Early in 1979, Rockefeller Foundation head Dr. John Knowles convinced him to lead a year-long study of apartheid—a policy of political and economic discrimination against blacks practiced by the oppressive white minority government of South Africa. Several months later, officials at the Ford Foundation asked if he would take on the foundation's presidency following the retirement of longtime Ford head McGeorge Bundy. Thomas agreed, stipulating that he be allowed to honor his commitment to the Rockefeller Foundation. He served as chairman of the Study Commission on United States Policy Toward Southern Africa and wrote the forward to the commission's 1981 report Time Running Out.

Reaction to Thomas's appointment as president of the Ford Foundation was enthusiastic. Vernon Jordan, former National Urban League president, hailed it as "the most significant black appointment in my time…the first real example of a case where whites have turned meaningful power over to a black," according to Black Enterprise.

Ebony reported that Thomas viewed the Ford Foundation as "one of the few places that has social purpose as its objective and…controls the resources with which to do something about it." But while his appointment represented honor and opportunity, it was not without its downside. The foundation was hitting hard times. Declining stock prices and overextension during the previous administration had shrunken assets to $2.2 billion from a mid-1960s high of $4 billion. Annual spending was down to $108 million from $220 million. In addition, the Ford Foundation was committed to too many programs.

Among his first actions upon occupying the foundation's New York offices was the creation of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC). Funded by Ford and six corporations, the LISC would help existing community development groups—like the one Thomas had run in Bedford-Stuyvesant—move from successfully managed small projects to major neighborhood revitalization efforts.

But while LISC was important, Thomas's main inaugural task was an exhaustive review of all of the foundation's administrative and grant-making activities. In order to turn things around financially, Thomas had to be a tough manager; changing the institution would mean confronting the entrenched staff. Each officer had to undergo a performance review and justify the worth of his or her program. Longtime staffers resented the review. They reportedly saw Thomas as aloof and unwilling to talk to them on a personal basis. Siobhan Oppenheimer-Nicolau, a program officer with Ford for 14 years, told New York magazine, "There was a very drastic change in style after Frank arrived. This had always been a very collegial operation, with a great deal of feedback, of exchange. Much of that stopped because he isolated himself and people had no way of knowing whether or not he had any confidence in them."

Early in 1981 Thomas completed his review and began making changes at the foundation. He told New York his mandate was to address problems of overextension, to reduce the ratio of management costs to program dollars, and to reorganize the staff in order to break up the largely separate divisions and encourage staff interaction. As a result of the reorganization, 16 senior staff members left of their own accord and another 16 were laid off. By the end of his third year, Thomas had trimmed the entire Ford staff from over 442 to about 324.

Many staffers were angry at being forced to leave. Four older employees filed age discrimination complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Thomas responded that he had the right to let these people go and that they should have known better than to expect lifetime employment at the Ford Foundation. "The foundation has hired people on term contracts in order to reinforce the fact that there is no tenure here," he told New York. "Besides, there is always the desirability of having a somewhat regular rotation of significant parts of your staff.… Age was just not a factor in the decision of retention or non-retention."

While most critics recognized that Thomas was acting in the interest of the organization, some questioned his tactics. As quoted in New York, Oppenheimer-Nicolau noted that Thomas "chose to make a drastic turnaround rather than an evolutionary one, and this necessarily created more of a sense of threat than would normally have been the case."

Along with the staff cuts, Thomas made many important changes in the foundation's organization and priorities. He phased out Ford's heavy involvement in population control, environmental protection, school-finance reform, public-interest law and some other areas, while allocating more than half the foundation's budget for urban poverty and rural poverty and resources. In terms of grant-making, he moved the foundation away from providing routine operating expenses for local groups and toward concentrating on broader programs with the potential to impact large groups of people. Finally, Thomas reorganized the institution's three nearly autonomous divisions into six thematic areas: human rights and social justice; urban poverty and the disadvantaged; rural poverty and resources; education; international, economic, and political issues; and governance and public policy.

In contrast to Thomas's detractors, some observers acknowledged the president's serious-minded approach to his work—especially at a time when the government was pulling back in its commitment to all sorts of programs. "Frank is very analytical, careful and deliberate," Ford staffer Susan Berresford told Ebony. "In a period of diminishing resources, the kind of care he brings is all the more important. And he brings freshness."

By 1990 Thomas had in many basic ways changed the operation of the world's largest charitable foundation: the previously sagging endowment reached the $5.8 billion mark. The grant-making focused more on issues of domestic poverty, with an emphasis on results-oriented programming rather than on studies.

In many ways Thomas had worked to bring the experience he gained at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation to the hundreds of community redevelopment agencies the Ford Foundation was supporting through the LISC. "I would argue community development is emerging as a major revolution in the country," he told the New York Times, "one that engages people in ways that affect their lives and their localities. It may not be glamorous, but it should stimulate an excitement in all of us regardless of our politics or background."

Though not known for his public persona, Thomas was coaxed out of his quiet ways by the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. He blamed the riots at least partially on the U.S. government. "The weak partner in community revitalization in the last decade has been the federal government, which has retreated from participation," he told the New York Times. "The events in Los Angeles tell us we cannot continue to fail investing in our neighborhoods and our people. We are spending the capital invested years ago, and that capital needs to be renewed."

After seventeen years at the helm, Thomas ended his career at the Ford Foundation in 1996. Susan Berresford was his chosen successor. Thomas drew great satisfaction in leaving the Foundation as "tightly managed, tightly budgeted, …" and with "a sense that the place functions on a basis that can be explained, that decisions are taken on a basis that seems rational and consistent with the program agenda," according to the Ford Foudation Report. Writing about Thomas' career for the Ford Foundation Report, Henry B. Schacht considered Thomas' tenure a "period of extraordinary leadership." Thomas offered his philosophy of leadership to Siobhan Oppenheimer-Nicolau in an interview by the National Film Archive of Philanthropy, saying, as quoted in the Ford Foundation Report: "[I]deally, you want to attract people who are smarter than you are. That's how you help an organization grow. But first you have to be willing to admit that there are people who are smarter than you are. And then you have to consciously and deliberately try and find them and induce them to come and work in an environment where they, too, are not necessarily going to be the smartest persons in the place. If you can build that into your own psyche, if you don't feel threatened by those differences but feel enriched by them, then you can have a great time in a foundation. If, on the other hand, you have to feel that you know everything and know more about each subject than anyone else in your institution, then you are letting your own individual limits hinder the institution's ability to function well. And that's not leadership."

Since 1996, Thomas has continued to lead. He has maintained his membership on the board of directors of several of the country's most powerful companies, including Citicorp, Lucent Technologies, and Pepsico, and worked as a consultant for the TFF Study Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to development in South Africa. He was also hired to chair the September 11th Fund to offer relief to the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. In 2003 Fortune magazine dubbed Thomas as one of four "kingmakers" in corporate America, noting that his position in some of the country's largest companies gave him the "power to make other people powerful." Given Thomas' dedication to wooing the best and the brightest to his organizations, corporate America seemed in good hands.



Black Enterprise, September 1980; February 1982; July 1990.

Ebony, October 1982.

Ford Foundation Report, Spring 1996.

Fortune, August 11, 2003.

Los Angeles Times, February 14, 1992.

Newsweek, September 7, 1981.

New York, September 28, 1981.

New Yorker, August 31, 1981.

New York Times, January 30, 1979; February 8, 1981; October 10, 1982; May 26, 1992.

U.S. News & World Report, March 31, 1981.

Wall Street Journal, February 15, 1979.


Ford Foundation, www.fordfound.org (January 31, 2005).

"Franklin A. Thomas," Ford Foundation Report, http://www.fordfound.org/publications/ff_report/view_ff_report_detail.cfm?report_index=48 (January 31, 2005).

—Jordan Wankoff and

Sara Pendergast

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