Thomas Cole, keystone Atlanta educator, dies at 81

Dr. Thomas W. Cole, Jr., a noted chemist and educator, including teaching at and leading Clark Atlanta University as president, died this month. (KENT D. JOHNSON/staff)

Credit: AJC

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Dr. Thomas W. Cole, Jr., a noted chemist and educator, including teaching at and leading Clark Atlanta University as president, died this month. (KENT D. JOHNSON/staff)

Credit: AJC

Clark College and Atlanta University were founded shortly after the Civil War to educate freed slaves. When they merged for financial reasons in the late 1980s, a chemistry professor, Dr. Thomas W. Cole, was named the first president of the new Clark Atlanta University.

“He was a students’ president,” said Dr. George French, the new university president. “The majority of [college] presidents love their institutions, but they don’t provide a lot of access to students. But Dr. Cole loved to ask students about their classes, how things were on campus.” Among his achievements as president was building new dormitories for students who had previously sometimes been forced to live in subpar private housing.

Thomas Cole died April 21 at age 81; a cause of death was not announced. A celebration of life was held April 25 at Cascade United Methodist Church.

“When I was in high school, all I wanted to be was a research chemist. I wanted to make a discovery that would change the world,” Cole wrote in an op-ed article for the Atlanta Journal Constitution on the eve of his retirement as president of Clark Atlanta in 2002.

“I’ve learned, though, that it’s not one big discovery that will change the world, but a series of many smaller ones.”

“He had a very magnetic personality, but he was low key. People were drawn to him,” recalled Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond. “It’s like he had electricity from his intellect, and people were attracted to that.”

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042522 Atlanta: Clark Atlanta University conducts the interment of its founding president, Thomas W. Cole, at Harkness Hall Monday, April 25, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

042522 Atlanta: Clark Atlanta University conducts the interment of its founding president, Thomas W. Cole, at Harkness Hall Monday, April 25, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
042522 Atlanta: Clark Atlanta University conducts the interment of its founding president, Thomas W. Cole, at Harkness Hall Monday, April 25, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Colleagues said Cole was always aware of the importance of historic black colleges and universities in the Black community.

“He was always conscious that Black young people should be developing their minds, not letting them go to waste,” said Bond. “The term that comes to mind used to be ‘Uplift the race,’ when W.E.B. Dubois was around.”

“He had a worldview on HBCUs that was more than a localized view,” said French. “He saw that the HBCU community is changing, and part of that change is how they sustain themselves financially. He saw down the line we’re going to have to have a new model, with more fundraisers. He saw the value of interacting and partnering with the larger white community and institutions.”

Cole was born Jan. 11, 1941, in Vernon, Texas. The Cole family moved to Marshall, Texas, where his father served as dean and later president of Wiley College from 1958 to 1971. He graduated summa cum laude from Wiley College in 1961, and married his childhood sweetheart, Brenda S. Hill, in 1964.

Cole attended the University of Chicago and earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1966; he and Dr. Philip E. Eaton became the first chemists to synthesize Cubane, a synthetic hydrocarbon molecule that has become important in fuel storage and energy transport.

He joined the faculty of Atlanta University as assistant professor of chemistry in 1966, and later served as chair of the chemistry department and vice president for academic affairs. He was appointed president of West Virginia State College and served from 1982-1986.

He returned to Atlanta as president of Clark College in 1988, when it cosolidated with Clark College and continued as president until 2002.

While at Clarkk Atlanta he oversaw the building of the university’s Research Center for Science and Engineering, which was named for him. “The under-representation of minorities in science, engineering and math is alarming,” he said in 1989 when ground was broken. “The science research center will allow Clark Atlanta University to play a direct role in reversing those trends.”

Following retirement, he served as President of Great Schools Atlanta, Interim Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Interim President of The Interdenominational Theological Center.

Among many honors, he was presented the W.E.B. Dubois Award from the NAACP and The Drum Major for Justice Award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Cole is survived by his wife, Judge Brenda Hill Cole; daughter Kelley Cole Graham and son Thomas III; two granddaughters; sisters the Rev. JoAnn Cole Weeks, Eva Cole Harper, Patricia Cole; and other family members.

The family requests that gifts be made to the Thomas W. Cole Jr. Scholarship Fund at Clark Atlanta University.

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