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Rev. Samuel Thomas

The Rev. Sam Thomas, who served on the Kern High School District board of trustees from 1998 to 2006 and founded two local churches, died of complications from hernia surgery Wednesday.

He was 61.

Thomas was a pastor who founded Solid Rock Baptist Church and Omega Community Baptist Church. Toward the end of his life, he had worked with the bereaved and dying at a mortuary and a hospice.

Thomas also helped create the KHSD Community Tutorial Program, which is still operating. Through the program, district teachers help tutor teenagers after school. Local black pastors help run it, providing snacks and recruiting and transporting children.

"He was a very community- and student-oriented person," said Fuchsia Ward, who leads KHSD's alternative education programs. "He was sincere and dedicated," even when a challenge was daunting.

"Whenever we had some kind of hard job to do he'd ask me, 'How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. And that's how we're going to do this, so let's break it down,'" Ward said.

Thomas was born in Jonesville, La., but moved to California as a child. He finished high school in Los Angeles and earned a bachelor's of arts ministerial degree from Patten University in Oakland before obtaining master's and doctoral degrees from Summit Bible College in Bakersfield.

He also was a veteran of two branches of the armed forces, serving in the U.S. Army from 1970 to 1972 and the U.S. Marines from 1974 to 1978.

Maria Soto, a funeral director at Greenlawn Mortuaries, worked with Thomas when he was a chaplain there.

"Whenever you asked him how he was doing, the answer was always the same: 'Blessed, I am beyond blessed,' and he would smile," she said.

His widow described him as a loving husband and father for whom faith and family were everything.

"He had a kind of morbid sense of humor, and he used to tell me all the time that when he went, he wanted his tombstone to say, 'I served God and died,'" Ada Thomas said.

The former school board trustee is survived by his wife, Ada Thomas, 60, of Bakersfield; daughters Desonia Johnson, 44, of Lancaster; Kasandra Wilkerson, 43, of Long Beach; Toni Arrington, 39, of Grand Prairie, Texas; Tanya Thomas, 38, of Long Beach; Tara Thomas, 30, of Seattle; and son Samuel Thomas II, 33, of Seattle.

Visitation is scheduled for 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Aug. 8 at Celebration of Life Chapel, Greenlawn Southwest. The funeral is 10 a.m. Aug. 9, also at the chapel. Burial will follow at Bakersfield National Cemetery.