Lowell Thomas, Jr., who brought Tibet alive for millions of Americans, passes away

Lowell Thomas Jr.

Lowell Thomas Jr. receiving the International Campaign for Tibet’s Light of Truth award from the Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C. in November 2005.

Lowell Thomas, Jr., among the first Westerners to visit Tibet in the last century, passed away on October 1, 2016, just five days shy of his 93rd birthday. His trip to Tibet in 1949 resulted in scores of photographs, articles, radio programs and books that brought Tibet alive for millions of Americans. Lowell Thomas Jr. shaped this country’s views of Tibet at a critical time in Tibetan history and is one of the genuine grandfathers of the Tibet movement in America.

When Lowell Thomas, Jr. and his father visited Tibet in 1949, they were among the first of only seven or eight Americans to be granted a permit to travel to Tibet at that time. In recognition of his contribution to spreading awareness about the Tibetan issue, the Dalai Lama bestowed upon him the International Campaign for Tibet’s Light of Truth award on November 15, 2005 in Washington, D.C. Thomas was preceded in death by his wife Mary Taylor “Tay” Thomas. He is survived by his daughter, Anne Donaghy, and son, David, and their children and grandchildren.

Obituary by his daughter Anne Donaghy

Lowell Thomas Jr., former Lieutenant Governor of Alaska (1974-1978), author, lecturer, glacier pilot, public servant, friend of the Dalai Lama, died at his home in Anchorage on October 1 with his family at his side.

Lowell was born Oct. 6, 1923 in London, England to Lowell Jackson Thomas and Frances Ryan Thomas. His parents had both grown up primarily in Colorado, had married in August of 1917 and immediately traveled to Europe where Fran worked as a Red Cross nurse and Lowell Sr., a war correspondent, shipped on to the North Africa war theater. He connected with British General Allenby and an unknown-at-the-time Colonel T.E. Lawrence who was leading the British efforts with the Arabs against the Turks. Lowell Sr. spent ten days with Lawrence in Arabia and was so taken with his charismatic leadership that upon returning to America he wrote a series of articles for Asia magazine which became the bestselling book With Lawrence in Arabia.

Lowell’s early childhood was spent in New York City, base of operations for his father’s nightly radio broadcasts, with weekends at the family home in Quaker Hill, above the town of Pawling, New York. Later Lowell Sr. was able to broadcast from a studio at his Quaker Hill home, and Lowell Jr. loved living full time there, horseback riding with his parents, playing baseball, skiing, hockey and sledding, all with the backdrop of a colorful and fascinating parade of guests of his parents, counts and war heroes, princes and presidents. FDR’s summer White House was just up the road in Hyde Park, and Lowell Sr. organized summer baseball games between the White House press corps and his own local team The Nine Old Men (which was Roosevelt’s derisive term for the Supreme Court, which opposed his reforms and his proposed increase of the Court to 15 members).

Lowell attended the Taft School and then Dartmouth College, graduating in the class of 1946, though his studying was interrupted by World War II; he signed up for the Army Air Corps (predecessor of the Air Force) and became a pilot, but suffered rheumatic fever before he could be sent to Europe for combat, so he became a flight instructor in the U.S. instead, and had numerous stories of close calls teaching student pilots in the flight patterns over military airfields.

Flying became Lowell’s passion, along with skiing, for the rest of his life. In 1954 Lowell bought his beloved Cessna 180, “Charlie,” and he and his wife of four years, Tay, the former Mary Taylor Pryor of the adventurous Pryor family (her father Sam Pryor was a vice president of Pan American Airlines in its heyday), flew over the Mediterranean Sea from France to Morocco, across Africa, over Mount Kilimanjaro, and up to the Middle East, through Iraq and Afghanistan and into Pakistan. They were the first single engine private aircraft in many of the places they reached. Tay was co-pilot and navigator, successfully guiding them across the Empty Quarter of Arabia on their return to France. Tay and Lowell published two articles in National Geographic about their trip, and co-wrote the book, Our Flight to Adventure.

Flying led Lowell to Alaska. In 1958 he and Tay and toddler daughter Anne, flew Charlie up from the East Coast for a trip around Alaska––not yet a state––resulting in his film and Tay’s book, Follow the North Star. They loved Alaska so much that they moved the whole family up in 1960 and Lowell has been a full-time resident ever since. He flew over the entire state many times, from ice islands north of Barrow, all along the western coast, through the St. Elias mountains, even over the summit of Mount Logan with a National Geographic photographer documenting high altitude research on its summit in 1973. But Lowell’s favorite flying of all was on and around Denali. He loved doing summer flightseeing for his friends at Camp Denali, using the Kantishna airstrip deep in Denali Park, and often air-dropping cartons of ice cream as he arrived. And for a number of years Lowell also did the more challenging mountain rescue flying in his turbocharged Helio Courier, in the years before the use of rescue helicopters on the mountain. Mountain pilot Don Sheldon mentored Lowell in landing and taking off on glaciers and at altitude, and over the years Lowell developed his skill and judgment and became a true glacier pilot himself. His good judgment, cool head and experience made him a legendary pilot amongst legendary pilots. Lowell had seven forced landings in all of his flying years, but never once even scratched a plane because he was always thinking ahead of the plane, always planning where he would set it down if the unexpected happened.

Lowell began his years of public service soon after moving to Anchorage. He began his life as what once was called “a Rockefeller Republican,” working against social injustice and to protect the environment (much later in his life, as his political party moved to the right, he was proud to become an Independent). He served for 12 years in the Alaska state senate, then in 1973 became Lieutenant Governor of Alaska during the first four years of his good friend, Jay Hammond’s, remarkable tenure as Governor. Lowell was a true public servant. He is best known for his staunch advocacy of the environment, for working against the bounty hunting of wolves, for leading the way in establishing Chugach State Park. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award by the Alaska Conservation Foundation in 2004, and in 2011 the ACF established the Lowell Thomas, Jr. award, annually given for outstanding achievements by a conservation organization. Lowell also was awarded the William Penn Mott Jr. Leadership Award by the National Parks and Conservation Association in 1995. And in March, 2012 the Alaska Legislature passed a Legislative Citation honoring Lowell, and his wife Tay, for the lifetime of work they have done for the state of Alaska.

Perhaps one of the best examples of Lowell’s dedication to public service is his continuation, over fifty decades, of the work he and his father committed to after their 1949 trip to Tibet, when they met with the young Dalai Lama and his ministers on the eve of the Chinese invasion, and they promised to do their best to rally support for the protection of the Tibetan people and culture. While Lowell Sr. used the platform of his radio broadcasts for spreading the message of the plight of Tibet, Lowell Jr. wrote a bestselling book, Out Of This World, and later produced a movie by the same name, which became a part of his father’s High Adventure television series and was seen by many people around the world (and currently is found on YouTube). Lowell met a number of times with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and in 2006 was awarded a Light of Truth award by International Campaign for Tibet, and called “one of the grandfathers of modern day Tibet.”

In his own community Lowell served on boards or supported many organizations such as the Alaska Conservation Foundation, National Parks and Conservation Association, the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and the Anchorage Rotary Club. Lowell made an endowment gift in 1997 to Alaska Pacific University’s nordic skiing program and helped secure matching federal funding for the refurbishment of the aged US Biathlon training center perched on the edge of the Eagle glacier, overlooking the Girdwood valley. In 2001 the extensive repairs and renovations were completed and the APU program has a world-class training center and a ski program that has begun producing world champions.

Beginning in the early 1960s Lowell and his wife Tay were pillars of St. Mary’s church in Anchorage, Alaska, where Lowell raised his beautiful baritone voice in the choir. They served the church in many quiet ways, helping with its major renovation some thirty years ago, and then with the recent building of the Thomas Center, Tay’s dream that Lowell made a reality. Lowell moved to a sun-filled unit in the Thomas Center in April, and since then has been surrounded each day by loving friends.

Lowell held on to “Jr.” after his father, Lowell Sr. died in 1981 since he had become well known by this name, especially in Alaska and in conservation and the Tibet community in exile, as well as for his books. But two years ago, his minister asked him how he’d like his name to show up on something the church was doing, and Lowell thought a long moment and then said, “just Lowell Thomas” and he went on to add that he didn’t need the “Jr” any longer.

Lowell was predeceased by Tay (Mary Taylor Pryor Thomas), his wife of 64 years of marriage. He leaves behind his children Anne (John Donaghy) and David (Suzanne), his grandchildren Taylor (Mark Stephens), Lucy, Ellen (Cody Powers), Louise (Corey Gregory), and Molly, and his great grandchildren Miko, Finn and June Stephens, Stig Linck, and Wyatt Powers (with Wyatt’s little brother due to be born on October 7th).

Lowell’s immediate family plans to gather with his church, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Anchorage next summer for a celebration of Lowell’s life. They suggest that memorial gifts in Lowell’s name be sent to the Alaska Conservation Foundation or International Campaign for Tibet, two organizations whose causes have been dear to Lowell’s heart.

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