PARKERSBURG — On the morning of June 24, 2009, Aaron Thomas was on his way to play golf and attend a leadership conference in Ankeny.
Todd Thomas was in Jamaica for the wedding of his college roommate.
Alex Pollock was on an Alaskan cruise.
Brad Zinnecker was hiking in New Hampshire.
Ed Thomas was encouraging student-athletes in the Aplington-Parkersburg High School weight room.
It was a morning filled with excitement, anticipation and the promise of good things to come.
Then a mentally ill, 24-year-old Mark Becker walked into the A-P weight room with a .22-caliber handgun where he fatally shot Ed Thomas, one of high school football’s most respected, successful coaches and one of Parkersburg’s most beloved citizens.
It was a devastating tragedy that shook the proud Northeast Iowa community of around 1,800 to its core just a year after an EF5 tornado left the town in shambles.
Ten years later, time has helped soften the harsh edges of grief and loss for Aaron and Todd, the sons of Ed and Jan Thomas. On the other hand, it’s a memory two of Ed Thomas’ closest friends and coaching comrades — Al Kerns and Jon Wiegmann — prefer not to talk about.
“June 24th is a tough day, without a doubt,” Aaron Thomas said last week.
“You go from those first years where there was definitely more sadness, and there’s still some of that, but I think there’s more reflecting now and looking back and thinking about all the good times and memories.”
Edward Arthur Thomas would have been 69 years old in July. He was born in Oskaloosa and raised in What Cheer, the oldest of five children. He played quarterback for Tri-County High School of Thornburg, then earned college degrees from William Penn and the University of Northern Iowa.
Thomas’ coaching career began at Northeast Hamilton High School and spanned 37 years, but it was at Parkersburg High beginning in 1975 where he built a small-town program into a national story. He compiled a 292-84 record with two state titles. He groomed and developed players like Casey Wiegmann, Jared DeVries, Brad Meester, Aaron Kampman and Landon Schrage for future stardom in the NFL. The field at A-P is officially known as Ed Thomas Field. Unofficially, it’s called the Sacred Acre.
It was never about the wins or the stars or the attention for Ed Thomas. He relished his role as a mentor to less talented athletes and students and watching them become successful, productive adults. He was dedicated to First Congregational Church in Parkersburg where he helped hire Zinnecker as pastor, serving as an elder, deacon and Sunday school teacher. He enjoyed playing golf and mingling with friends and neighbors over breakfast at a local diner.
Nobody can take the place of Ed Thomas. His family and friends can honor his legacy and make sure his mantra of faith, family and football lives on. The Ed Thomas Family Foundation carries the message to a wider audience. A poster near the main entrance at A-P pays tribute to Thomas as “the father, the teacher and the leader.”
Aaron Thomas was coaching basketball at Union Community in La Porte City at the time of his father’s death. He has since returned to A-P where he is currently the principal and men’s basketball coach.
“I am very appreciative of Mr. Thompson (Jon) and the school board for giving me the opportunity to come back,” he said. “I know the pride my dad took in the community and the school. I felt that. I think anybody who played for dad or was involved heard the message that you never forget where you came from and always understand it’s not like this everywhere.
“That was a big piece for me coming back.”
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Like his dad, Aaron also tries to connect with the students at A-P and with members of the community.
“Dad went out of his way to talk to a lot of different students, not just his football players,” Aaron recalled. “He made a difference, and I try to make sure all our students know they are important here. I talk to every one I can in the hallways during passing periods. This has never been work for me, and I know dad never thought school and teaching and coaching and everything was work. It was his passion, and now I get to go to my passion each and every day.”
Aaron Thomas also takes on around 40 public speaking engagements a year with companies, schools, church groups and fund-raising organizations.
“I learned so much about leadership from my dad, and a lot of times I reflect back on the life lessons you learn due to circumstance and due to tragedy. Everybody is going to go through tough times. Hopefully, it’s not the murder of a loved one. A big key is how you respond and move forward.
“I had to choose not to live in June 24, 2009. I had to move forward. I got to watch my parents do that after the tornado. That’s truly kind of the same mentality we took after losing dad in 2009.”
Those speaking engagements nearly always provide additional memories of Ed Thomas.
“I feel very fortunate to hear all the different stories I get about my father,” said Aaron. “Whenever I go speak it never fails in Iowa to hear a story from somebody who had an encounter with my father. I always appreciate when people come up and share those memories with me.”
If Ed Thomas were still among us, Aaron has no doubt his dad would still be coaching football.
“That was his plan,” Aaron related. “I had three boys, and he commented about how he would like to coach all three of his grandsons. Since then, Todd had a son and a daughter. I think if dad had been healthy and able, I don’t know if he would be teaching full time, but I think he’d be coaching and possibly still be the athletic director.”
Aaron also believes Ed Thomas would be proud of what he sees at Aplington-Parkersburg High School, within the football program and around a community that has pulled itself together more than once.
“I think dad would be proud of the participation of young people here,” said Aaron. “I think he’d be shocked at the numbers we have out for cross country and the success we’ve had, but he’d be all for it. He loved to see kids competing.
“He was also fond of the great support of our communities. Our crowds home and away meant a ton to him. It was something he took great pride in.
“In football, we won a lot of games when we weren’t the most talented team. It was fundamentals and attention to detail. The mindset and the culture was an expectation to win and work hard and take pride in what you do.”
Pollock took over as head coach in 2010 after Kerns and Wiegmann filled the role for the 2009 season.
“The challenge for Coach Pollock was how to make the program his,” said Aaron Thomas. “You’ve got to respect the tradition and history, and that’s always a challenge when you take over after a coach who had been there for so many years.
“Everything changes. One of the things we talked about when he took over was it won’t be the same forever. We just hope A-P football stands for the same things. We want kids to take pride in what they do and know what it means to be part of a team and part of something bigger than yourself. We want to develop kids into good citizens.
“Dad took as much pride in that as the wins and losses.”