By Barbara Steinberg
As I have often said, it was my great good fortune the day I walked into the Carroll Thomas Art Gallery in Bishop, California. A robust gentleman with full head of silver hair greeted us. He was tall and handsome. His voice was strong and sure. This was Carroll Thomas. It was early May 1996 and he had just celebrated his 96th birthday.
The group, members of the Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC), was on a post-press trip after the fall conference in Bishop. All of us had seen a thing or two in our lives but I will be the first to say I was stunned. Carroll looked 80...maybe a couple of years more…but 96? No way! He shared stories of his life, his travels and his art. His memory was sharp, probably more so than most people I knew a third his age. I was enchanted. I knew that it would not be the last time we would meet.
I also spent time with his partner in life and business, Helen Michael. She carefully managed the day-to-day details of running the gallery while Carroll painted. They were a good match. I remarked about a 100th birthday party – four years off – and said, “Put me on the invitation list. I will be there!” Four years later, May 2010, I celebrated with Carroll and his family and friends. I was then included in the latter. It was a happy day and Carroll was in his glory.
Carroll’s health had declined over the past two years, but he was always ready to share a story or two with visitors. Helen tended to his every need and continued to run the gallery. Gratefully, three stories about Carroll were published in 2010 – Inyo County Register, Sierra Heritage, and Mammoth Sierra Magazine – which brought new admirers and customers to the gallery. The “Pièce de résistance” in 2010 was Carroll being nominated and then chosen as OWAC’s Californian of the Year. It was a very good year.
Carroll’s son and daughter in law Allen and Donna Thomas traveled to Visalia to accept the award on Saturday evening, Sept. 11. By then, Carroll was already in a care facility in Bishop, but to quote Allen, “My dad is holding on with both hands until we get to Bishop with this award!” No truer words were spoken. Carroll celebrated with Helen, Allen and Donna, enjoying a little cake and punch.
At the Saturday awards ceremony we viewed a video of Carroll made in July. I asked what it meant to him to be chosen as OWAC’s Californian of the Year and he said, “Mind boggling. I never really expected any such experience. For other people to realize what I have done and be honored by it…why it’s a good way to end a life.”
Helen called me to say that Carroll passed away Wednesday night, Sept. 15.