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Remembering David Thomas

David ThomasThe purpose of this page is to allow members of SIL, both present and past, and other friends and colleagues of David to share memories and thoughts about David Thomas.  If you would like to contribute, please send text or images to the .

These are some tributes we have received:


Dr. Hermann Janzen
Former colleague at the Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development
Mahidol University
Bangkok, Thailand

For many years David Thomas was a true friend, pleasant colleague and great example to me. Coming as a doctoral student from a cool distant academic atmosphere in Europe it was a pleasant surprise to be invited to the home of a Professor, which had never happened before in my home land Germany. His caring wife Dorothy served simple but healthy meals while we discussed various questions. He carefully checked through linguistic papers with me including my doctoral dissertation written in English, which is my second language. He and his wife helped me to bring manuscripts from a German abstract philosophical style and elaborate sentence structure to international standards of excellence. He made me work hard on manuscripts of any kind and to polish them, mentioning, by the way, that any good manuscript should be worked over and corrected at least 15 times, to make it ready for a publisher, and to be understood unambiguously in the whole world, especially here in Asia.

David at Mahidol Univ with the Ling Dept and SIL staff
David at Mahidol University with the Linguistic Department and SIL staff

I learned from his example earnestness in academic endeavor, humility and respect in relating to others and graciousness and persistency in helping students overcome shortcomings in any area of personal life and service. He had a childlike faith in his heavenly father in every problem situation. He always took a positive viewpoint sharing a new insight on a matter by replying with “Well… For him everything was going well, even if his own words sometimes failed to flow as he might have hoped. He shared with me how he had suffered in his youth here in Asia, faced many hardships, experienced rejection and frustration, but all came out for him for the better. He could inspire hope in the face of adversity, which the Thai students also needed, as they struggled with academic English and western cognitive styles of communication on top of other personal hardships while trying to finish their master’s theses. He designed with us, as international staff, linguistically simplified, culturally relevant and contextualized approaches to research of Phonology and models of grammatical analysis and cultural descriptions of minority languages for Asian students. Till today these students have increased thenumber of volumes of research papers, dictionaries, theses and dissertations on many minority languages of the region, written in those appropriate styles by up-coming Thai scholars, so that they fill the shelves in libraries of local universities.

I never saw him worrying about his own material possessions. He lived a simple, content but meaningful life. He had a fine ear and keen mind for spiritual values of the heart, fine art and music. Though he had his convictions and strong commitments, and we both developed a firm bridge of trust and common ground in our views, he never asked me to join his organization for he believed in the proverb that not all eggs have to be in one basket and that there are unique ways each one can serve with his gifts and capacities in any social structure and cultural environment and so have a significant contribution to the overall society. In his content and unassuming way he has contributed more to the development of cultures of this region and to the fulfillment of their true values than may be seen merely at the academic level.

I feel indebted to him in valuing the worth of an individual, of academic excellence, spiritual integrity and simplicity of life out of a sacrificial and caring heart for those who needed assistance and in the ways in which he emulated these qualities by his life style. I see his life and death as a challenge and legacy to pass on the baton to coming generations of scholars who will need the same kind of source of strength and resources of character which we have seen in him. These are sufficient ingredients and merits that can change the situation in needy minority and majority cultures in Asia by teaching genuine development within with without. I foresee many more projects evolve from such a firm basis.

I count it as a great privilege to have had a friend, and colleague like him, who was closer to me than a brother. I believe that even as we go on into the future many will still continue to be thankful to him for what he and Dorothy’s dedicated service meant to them.


Robert Headley
SE Asian Linguist and co-author

I first met Dave in Saigon in 1962 when he gave me some SIL material on Mon-Khmer and Chamic languages of Vietnam.

Several years later, after I had begun work on a Cambodian dictionary, I got back in touch and discussed some ideas I had about the Pearic languages. Dave suggested that we collaborate on a classification of Mon-Khmer. You can't imagine how thrilled I was. I had never had an article published, and now I was working with one of the big names in Southeast Asian linguistics. We carried on a long correspondence and then my wife and I spent 2 days with Dave, Dot and Dave's mother in Philadelphia where Dave was working on his Ph. D. This collaboration resulted in "More on Mon-Khmer Subgroupings" (Lingua 25, 1970).

From that time on, Dave and Dot became friends and mentors. We enjoyed their inferequent visits to Washington and our infrequent visits to the mountains of Western North Carolina.

I cannot imagine the future of Mon-Khmer studies without Dave, but he has helped to give it a firm foundation. Thanks for everything, Dave.


Dr. Austin Hale
International Linguistics Consultant, SIL

One of David’s finest contributions was his philosophy of consulting. He not only articulated it, he lived it.

While wondering how best to express my tribute to David’s work I went back and keyboarded a copy of his 1987 article, ‘Consultants as Encouragers’ so as to have a copy on my hard disk as a constant companion to guide me in consulting. It is a classic statement, as are Thomas 1977, and 1966 (reprinted in Thomas 2000).

These brief statements provide a better account of David’s consultant heart than anything I could give. Consultants, linguistic consultants especially, could profit from at least an annual rereading of these statements in memory of David.


Eugenia Fuller
Vietnam branch colleague

Dave and Dottie
Dottie and Dave

Quiet, unassuming, kindly, brilliant David Thomas was truly one of SIL's greats — something probably few current SIL folk know. David was one of the main reasons our branch made such remarkable progress in our comparatively short time there. He knew the value of team efforts and he quietly but persistently showed our teams the value of pooling their info at workshops — even though no one wanted to leave their own project long enough to participate in a workshop. Those workshops were one of the main reasons for the good production our branch had in linguistics, literacy and translation. Dave set the example by taking numerous large chunks of time out of his and Dot's projects to further the overall branch objectives -- both as Acting Director and at workshops. Like Ken Smith, Dave could see both the forest and the individual trees in it.

He was able to explain things so that even persons like myself could understand them. And he was always willing to stop what he was doing and help someone.

Dave knew the value of social interaction and always participated in group activities at conferences and other group meetings. He had a good singing voice and usually joined a quartet or trio to produce some good music for our group.

Dave's life and service were complemented and enhanced by his wife, Dottie — and hers by him. They were people of strong steadfast faith, and they both were encouragers and nice to be around.


Professor Theraphan L‑Thongkum
Dean, Faculty of Arts
Chulalongkorn University
Bangkok, Thailand

We have lost a good person and a great SEA linguist. After working very hard and contributing a great deal, he deserves a peaceful rest with God. We, native speakers of SEA languages, owe him a lot and always feel grateful for his sacrifice and contribution.


Professor Dr. Suwilai Premsrirat
Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development
Mahidol University
Bangkok, Thailand

It is our deepest sorrow to hear that Ajarn Dr. David Thomas has passed away. We have lost a great teacher and consultant. We are grateful to him and his wife, Ajarn Dorothy, who joined the Mahidol staff members in building a solid foundation of linguistics that emphasizes the study of languages of ethnic minorities and field linguistics in Thailand (and also South East Asia). Ajarn David contributed significantly to the young linguist’s appreciation of linguistic research on ethnic minorities and their ability to handle complex problems with confidence.

Ajarn David will be greatly missed by all the faculty here at Mahidol’s Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development and our deepest sympathy goes out to Ajarn Dorothy.


Carolyn P. Miller
President SIL, 1999–2008

Recently we have been thinking through our years in Vietnam, since a student in a seminary in Ho Chi Minh City has asked us to help him with a major paper.  He wants to write about the history of the Bru translation project, so that future generations of Bru people will know what it cost for them to get God’s Word in their own language.  Dave and Dorothy Thomas figured in a major way in those recollections, as they did in so many of the translation projects in Vietnam.

Dave was significant in almost every aspect of the Bru project, as he was in the development of our professional growth.  His encouragement and help in working through language issues and writing up of linguistic data were a significant influence on our careers with SIL.

David and Dorothy with students
David and Dorothy with students

Dave and Dorothy are remembered fondly at Mahidol University.  When we first came to Thailand to work, I remember being somewhat surprised that the linguists at Mahidol were much more willing to cooperate and to invite others to their conferences and seminars than were those from other Thai universities.  A colleague responded, “Well of course.  They had David Thomas teaching them.  So his attitude of ‘We do good work and we share’ influenced them in a major way.”

As President of SIL, I want also to acknowledge the debt we owe as an organization to David.  His encouragement of young scholars all over the organization has had a profound effect on our work around the world.

We are grateful to have known Dave and to have worked together with him.

Carolyn (and for John) Miller


Ken Smith
SE Asia Area Linguist

David Thomas – My Unacknowledged Mentor

News of Dave’s Home-going last week has caused me to reflect again on Dave’s life, especially his influence in my life.

I want to acknowledge with thanks and appreciation the leadership and example which Dave provided to us all.

The Thomas's welcomed us to Saigon on May 5, 1962, from which point Dave was our field Director. He assigned us to Kontum for Vietnamese language study and a year later to the Sedang language project.

Though Dave’s time as Director ended in 1963, he continued as the Branch Linguistics Committee Chairman and Branch Librarian for the rest of his years in Vietnam and Cambodia, during the transition in the Philippines 1975-78, and subsequently in Thailand. His linguistics workshop assignments were always: conclude with a publishable paper. And, further: One such paper every year! He then took upon himself to get each paper published, never taking “not accepted” as a final verdict. He would try some other publication until eventually everything he received from the workshop participants was published.

With a steady stream of publishable data papers, Dave was instrumental in starting the Mon-Khmer Studies Journal as a joint endeavor between the University of Saigon and SIL. Dave continued to guide the journal after it went to the University of Hawaii and later to Mahidol University in Bangkok.

The final 1978 Bibliography of the Vietnam/Cambodia Branch (by then renamed the Mainland Southeast Asia Branch) lists 681 published technical works by the Branch members, many, if not most, accomplished through Dave’s encouragement and consulting. I was most grateful that Dave, as Volume Editor of the Mon-Khmer Studies Journal, Special Issue No. 1, reviewed during his retirement in North Carolina the entire manuscript of my Sedang Dictionary making many necessary comments for my attention; and then he provided the Foreword.

Another of his strong suits was his suggestion that home furlough should be a time of additional training to prepare oneself better academically for the projects undertaken in Vietnam.

Accordingly, 24 of the Branch members obtained master degrees and eight doctor degrees (including his own from the University of Pennsylvania in 1967), representing 35% of the 84 members involved with the Vietnam program through the 17 years there.

It was with such encouragement that in 1968, at the end of our first furlough, I completed an MA in Linguistics at SIL/UND, and then considered going further during our second furlough. Dave’s experience at the University of Pennsylvania was shared with me. Since I’m more an engineer than a theoretically oriented person, he encouraged me with the information that Penn was not a beholder of a particular linguistics theory, but valued the field research of SILers. He introduced me to Dr. Dell Hymes during the 1967 summer at UND, which paved the way for me serving as his TA for a year. Hymes was then also on my dissertation committee. Dave also told me how to handle the required German exam: during my first year at Penn, he said, take the Beginning German and Advanced German classes offered to PhD candidates – if you don’t pass the exam at the end of the school year, then during the next furlough take the Intermediate German and the Advanced German classes and for sure one would pass the exam. But, he added, linguistics students have an edge on the other humanity students. He was right; I passed the exam that first year.

Dave was the one to allocate many of us to our language projects. In August 1962 he accompanied Marilyn and me with our six-month-old Linda to Kontum. It wasn’t easy because before the truck with our furniture arrived from Saigon, I got food poisoning from eating half of a sour pomelo. Probably reluctantly Dave borrowed some cots locally so that we could move out of the small-town hotel into our unfurnished rented house. The truck arrived on our third anniversary, August 8, 1962; from that moment I was over my sickness and we got the house set up.

In early 1970 Dave and I went over to the coast to locate a Haroi village allocation for Hella Goschnick and Alice Tegenfeldt Mundhenk. That was just the first of a number of trips I took with Dave. We joined Ken Gregerson in January 1973 to fly to Honolulu for the First International Austro-Asiatic Linguistic Conference where we three presented together a co-authored paper about the place of Bahnar in Bahnaric. That was my first linguistics conference, so I learned from Dave about the importance of preparing and presenting papers at such meetings.

During the interim years 1975–78 Dave and I made a number of trips together through Thailand and Malaysia to spawn the SIL work which continues in each country to this day. He was the brains for those trips; he was the visionary. I probably held the money and, as Branch Director, was the spokesman much of the time. Reflecting back to those many weeks traveling together, Dave once noted that as introverts, much of the time spent together was spent in silence (i.e. reading, writing). He regretted that we didn’t talk more to get to know each other better.

Dave and Dot set an example for all of us in accomplishing a balanced project. An estimate was made in 1978 of how much of a full, complete project was accomplished for each of the 23 language projects in Vietnam, including production in linguistics, ethnology, applied linguistics and translation. Their Chrau project headed the list with a rating of 100%. Dave had published a Chrau Grammar and many other linguistic studies, Dot published ethnographic studies, there were literacy materials prepared, and a Chrau New Testament published. The next closest project had a rating of 91%.

Another area of Dave’s leadership was as Executive Committee Chairman. Dave and Dot came to Sabah, Malaysia, for a vacation and we had some long walks and talks together in the Mount Kinabalu National Park. I was a good ear for Dave, and, as Director of the Malaysia Branch, had an entrée with some of those with whom Dave couldn’t easily speak.

He overcame a stuttering problem through the years. We were always amazed that he could sing without stuttering, as in the male quartets in which we sang together! He was a good musician, and we enjoyed his trombone playing.

When we went to Saigon in the Fall of 1963 to await David’s birth, Dave asked me to relieve Pat Bonnell of the Branch accounting for one month, allowing her to take a much deserved vacation. Since I had no formal accounting training that was, for me, an enlightening experience. I saw the full flow of funds from our donors, out to the members, with member finance reports going back . I learned of the basic reports an accountant makes for the management of the Branch. Then Dave set another example: when the Branch didn’t have a fulltime bookkeeper, since Dave was located in the nearest allocation to Saigon of all our teams, he volunteered to do the accounting. Dave and Dot would come into Saigon to do the books; then return to XuanLoc to their language work; and repeated that month after month. That seemed like a ploy to get an accountant assigned to the Branch because to get the attention of those who didn’t want to assign anyone to Vietnam at that time, it was said: “Our top PhD linguist is taking time out of his language project to do the accounting each month. We need an Accountant assigned to our Branch!” Now I also am doing the accounting for our MSEA Group, but very willingly and not missing the aura of linguistics study.

Truly Dave mentored me and many others as we worked and studied together in Southeast Asia. In 1978 as our Mainland Southeast Asia Branch was winding down, I felt that Dave and I ought to go different directions because I had learned so much from him and in many ways was similar to him. And thus it turned out, that I was appointed Director of the newly formed Malaysia Branch and Dot and Dave went to Thailand where the Lord used them both in very significant ways as they honored His name in the university community and among the Northern Khmer people.

So I appreciate Dave for all that he stood for and represented, serving his Lord with spiritual maturity and with an unbridled commitment to good linguistics as a necessary means to giving the Word of God to the peoples in Southeast Asia in languages that they would understand.

ChiangMai, Thailand
17 April 06