Thomas leaves for cowboy country

Don’t be surprised if the director of the Oak Harbor Senior Center comes to work today wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a Western-style shirt with lots of snaps.

It’s an outfit that Howard Thomas will have to get used to. He recently surprised Senior Center folks by announcing that he and his wife, Gloria, are retiring and moving to southwestern Colorado to rescue horses and explore the historic area.

“It was a surprise,” said Bill Cornell, chairman of the Senior Center Advisory Board. “We’re very sorry to see Howard leave. He’s been excellent.”

Senior Center folks are throwing him a going-away party from 3 to 5 p.m. today, July 13.

Before taking over the top spot at the Senior Center, Thomas was the public affairs office at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station for many years. After retiring from that position, he was a real estate agent and interim director of Citizens Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse, then went to work for the city.

This time Thomas is retiring for real.

Senior Center participants however, have nothing to fear. Thomas said Roxanne Dunn-Terry, who’s been the center’s project manager for more than 16 years, will take over as interim director when he’s gone.

City Administrator Thom Myers said the city will do the normal search and interview process to find a permanent replacement, but Dunn-Terry already seems like a front-runner. Both Thomas and Cornell said she would be perfect for the job.

“I can’t think of anyone in the city more qualified to step right up and keep things marching along,” Thomas said.

The Senior Center certainly is a bustling place. Thomas estimated that 3,500 unduplicated users will come in to the center 29,000 times to participate in 32,000 activities this year. Membership is up to about 1,800.

Since taking over as director two and a half years ago, Thomas has overseen many changes and challenges at the Senior Center. He worked to keep the meals program open and expand the travel program. He put together a computer lab that will open after he leaves.

Thomas recognized that the center is bursting at the seams and has been campaigning to expand the building. He created a preliminary design of the renovation project and wrote a request for a Community Development Block Grant, which unfortunately wasn’t awarded this year.

The greatest challenge for the Senior Center, Thomas said, is Day Break, the center’s adult day care program. The program is losing money because of a lack of participation. It’s currently $25,000 in the red.

But while city officials continue to deal with such challenges, Thomas will be far away enjoying the sunshine on his 10-acre spread in Mancos, Colo., which in not far from Durango.

Thomas said he and Gloria visited the area on vacation last summer and loved it so much they returned this summer. This time, they bought a house overlooking Mesa Verde National Park.

As a train buff, Howard was especially taken by Durango’s narrow-gauge railroad. He’s also a fan of history.

“There’s a lot of exciting stuff,” he said. “It’s in the middle of ancient and Western history.”

One of the reasons they’re moving there, Thomas said, is so that they can have horses. The former owner of their new house is leaving an old horse behind and they hope to adopt unwanted, neglected or abused equines.

“My wife’s dream,” he said, “has always been to be somewhere where she could have horses.”

Not to mention, Thomas seems genuinely excited about the prospects of dressing like a cowboy without being laughed at.

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