After 50 years at Sam Houston High, cancer survivor vows: 'I'm doing what I can to stay'

Judy Thomas should be resting but instead she's recounting the surprise of having a day named in her honor.

Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams declared June 13 Judy Thomas Day for her leadership of the Sam Houston High School Alumni Association.

But that only tells part of the story.

For the last two years, Thomas has been battling cancer but has refused to let that get in the way of supporting students at Sam Houston.

"We're all going to die at some point and time," Thomas said. "I'm doing what I can to stay here and complete some sort of mission for our kids, our community and to let these parents know their kids are loved by people other than themselves."

Thomas was diagnosed in 2016 with a malignant PEComa, a sarcoma of soft tissues.

She's had radiation to shrink a tumor, made countless trips to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where she was part of a clinical trial, but is now being treated locally. She just went through her sixth round of chemotherapy.

"Well there's no cure for cancer so eventually it will happen but I'm going to fight as long as I can," Thomas said. "I just have a positive attitude that I can stay here longer. That's all I care about."

In the 2016-17 school year, 87 percent of Sam Houston's students were economically disadvantaged, which was higher than the district-wide average of 69 percent in Arlington ISD, according to the Texas Education Agency.

As president of the Sam Houston High School Alumni Association, Thomas has helped raise more than $50,000 in scholarships and won grants for the baseball and softball teams. The alumni association has also helped stock the food pantry.

The high school has always been a part of her life. She is part of its first graduating class in 1965 and taught special education and social studies for 39 years before retiring in 2011. Even after retirement, she worked as a substitute teacher and testing coordinator to remain involved at the school.

"I've been a student or teacher for every principal in the history of Sam Houston," she said.

She became more involved with the alumni association in 2013.

"We all work for the kids so they can pursue their dreams," Thomas said. "Whatever that dream is, we want to make it as easy as we can. We don't want them to have to struggle. That's why I do it. To help them, help themselves."

When she went to the City Council meeting on Tuesday, Thomas thought the alumni association was being honored.

"I just lost it," Thomas said who laughed at the recollection. "I'm going to get back everybody who tricked me."

That includes her daughter, Jayme Thomas, a former Sam Houston valedictorian and now a chemistry teacher at her alma mater.

"She has always been the strongest person I've known," Jayme Thomas said. "She raised me as a single mom. She was always my example of how to live, what to do and how to treat people."

Jayme Thomas received a partial scholarship to TCU but her mom pushed her to apply for other partial scholarships so she could graduate debt-free.

Her mom's battle with cancer has given her even more of a reason to be proud.

"After that initial shock and the thought that 'Wow, the end is going to come sooner than I thought' she kind of put her foot down and said she was going to seek out whatever she can seek out. Even with all the travel to Houston, she always made time to be at alumni events. You would be hard pressed to find an event she hasn't been present for."

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna