Mercer Memories: Dr. Charlotte Thomas

You may know Dr. Charlotte Thomas as the philosophy professor or the Great Books teacher at Mercer, but she was once here as a student – roaming the campus, attending Greek mixers, and questioning her major just like us. Originally from St. Pete, Florida, Dr. Thomas found Mercer and immediately felt a connection. From 1985 to 1989, she lived here as a student, and after four years of living in Atlanta to complete graduate school at Emory University, she returned as a professor in 1994. As a Mercer alumni and a current professor, Dr. Thomas has plenty to share about Mercer, past and present.
Cluster: As a student, what made you choose Mercer?
Dr. Thomas: When I came to Mercer, it was a bit different than it is now. Around 35-40% of Mercer’s student body was from Florida. When I was still living in Florida, my Sunday school teacher, Jean Kinlin – who happened to be the first female to serve as SGA President at Mercer when she attended in the late 70s – looked at me and said that I should go to Mercer. I had been accepted to several other colleges, including Cornell and Vanderbilt, but I wanted to check Mercer out. Jean Kinlin drove me up for the weekend to tour the campus. I felt an instant connection. During this time, we stayed at the Alumni house, went to the Rookery, and had dinner with the Registrar. Later in the year, I went with my mom on a college tour all around the Southeast. We didn’t plan on visiting Mercer at this time, but since it was on the way, I wanted to stop by and check it out again. As soon as I stepped on campus, it just felt like home to me.
Cluster: Where did you live while you were at Mercer?
Dr. Thomas: I lived in a corner room of Porter’s third floor for my first two years at Mercer. There was no air conditioning in the building when I lived there, so we had a huge box fan sitting in the window. I can’t remember the heat ever being a problem, though. It might be because we didn’t start school until September.
Cluster: Do you have a favorite professor or story about a professor from your time as a student? Did anyone inspire you to become a professor?
Dr. Thomas: Well, when I started at Mercer, we had FSP (a precursor of FYS and INT) for the first two quarters of freshman year. Afterward, we could choose whether or not we wanted to go down the Great Books track. I was in the third group of students ever to go through Great Books at Mercer. In my first Great Books class, my professor was Mike Cass. He was one of those people who did and said whatever came to his mind. If students ever began relying on him too much for conversation in class, he would actually sit under the table to get the students to talk to each other. When I was in that class, it was like I could see light coming out of the book when he opened it – you could feel the power of the book. It felt like real and important things were happening.
Cluster: How did you decide the major you wanted to pursue?
Dr. Thomas: I came here with no idea what my major would be. At first, I thought I might be a math or computer science major, but I changed my mind quite a bit. I didn’t even take a philosophy class until my junior year. I didn’t really think about philosophy, until several of my general education professors recommended that I talk to Tom Trimble, who was in charge of the philosophy department. So I had to overload on classes, but I still graduated on time.
Cluster: While here as a student, were you involved in any Mercer organizations, such as Greek life, religious organizations or campus leadership?
Dr. Thomas: Oh yes. I pledged Phi Mu as a sophomore, served as Chief Justice of the Honor Council and was News Editor of The Cluster during my time as an undergrad. I was also involved in an on-campus religious group called the Glad River Congregation. This group was created in the 60s by professors who had become unhappy with conventional religion. There weren’t a lot of people who attended regularly, but a good number of those who did were some of the best professors Mercer has seen, including Dr. Trimble. I have had the unique opportunity of learning from some of these great professors as a student and then as a fellow teacher. Apprenticing under these people helped me become the teacher I am today.
Cluster: Do you have any interesting Mercer Memories to share?
Dr. Thomas: My time at Mercer as a student was a very eventful time campus-wide. Firstly, the Georgia Baptist Convention came down hard on Mercer, and then-current President, Kirby Godsey defended Mercer’s academic freedom. Soon after, I attended the GBC in Savannah, and there was such a show of Mercer pride. It was great to see. Then, around the same time (specifically 1987), Playboy announced Mercer University as the #9 party school in the nation, featuring racy photos of Mercer students ‘partying.’ Of course the GBC did not appreciate this. Possibly the most outrageous scandal of this time, however, was the accusation that Kirby Godsey was misappropriating funds. After this, his image of the hero of academic freedom changed a bit. In fact, Mercer staff members marched in protest against him. So, I had a lot to cover as News Editor.
Cluster: How does coming to Mercer every day as a professor differ from doing so as a student?
Dr. Thomas: Since I was a philosophy major and now I’m a philosophy professor, I go down the same halls I did as a student – therefore it seems familiar. But I’ve gotten into my routine as a teacher here, so I don’t think about it very often. If any friends from my days as a student visit me, that’s when I really start to remember.
Cluster: Is there anything that has drastically changed on Mercer’s campus since you graduated?
Dr. Thomas: Overall, I’d say the student body is smarter, with more ambition. It’s developed into a really wonderful place – it’s better. The campus itself is even more beautiful. I am still nostalgic for my mentors and the spirit they brought to this place. My professors were very serious about education, but fun and playful, too. They balanced a focus on ethics, faith and excellence with a mindset that was not so interested in professionalism and bureaucracy. We may have lost a little of that as a faculty. But I think today’s students will certainly be more prepared to work in the professional world.
Cluster: Did you always plan to work at Mercer?
Dr. Thomas: I went to grad school wanting to teach somewhere like Mercer. Actually, I was the first person to be hired in the Mercer Philosophy Department in 20+ years, and the first woman ever to be hired in the department. This was definitely my dream job. I almost didn’t even dare to dream it.