Published: April 29, 2013 By Karla Ward
William Thomas, 62, a former faculty member of the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., who returned to Lexington in retirement and dedicated himself to preserving a historic downtown church, died Sunday at St. Joseph Hospital.
Mr. Thomas was a cellist who grew up in Lexington and attended First African Baptist Church at Short and Deweese streets.
After a 36-year teaching and conducting career at the prep school, he moved back to Lexington in 2008.
A few years later, he formed a foundation to raise money to buy and preserve the church of his youth.
The Italianate-style sanctuary was built and paid for in the 1850s by a congregation consisting primarily of slaves.
Mr. Thomas had a vision of restoring the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, for use as a concert hall, cultural center and museum.
The First African Foundation has a contract to buy the building from Central Christian and is working to raise $800,000 to do so.
Earlier this month, Mr. Thomas traveled to Boston for a benefit concert to raise money for the cause at the historic African Meeting House.
“Everything he did was for this church,” said Yvonne Giles, who serves on the foundation board. “He’d be up (at) 2 and 3 in the morning being concerned … finding grants … writing letters.”
Despite health problems, “he just kept ticking, no matter what got in his way,” Giles said. “He was such a dear person.”
During his career at Andover, Mr. Thomas chaired the school’s music department and directed its cantata choir, symphony and chamber orchestra, taking groups of students on tour throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.
He also was music director of the Cambridge Community Chorus and served as artistic director for Project STEP, which provides strings training to musically talented minority students in the Boston area.
“There are thousands of children that William’s given the gift of music to,” said his sister, Donna Covington of Nicholasville. “William started my children in music.”
She said her son Virgil Covington III holds a degree in violin performance and her daughter, Rebecca Covington, is performing on Broadway in the ensemble for Motown the Musical.
On Sunday, as Mr. Thomas lay unconscious in a hospital bed, Donna Covington said her son and daughter came to his bedside to sing and play violin, and as they did, his heart rate increased.
“They thanked him for the gift of music,” she said. “It was just a special moment.”
Kerr Brothers Funeral Home on Harrodsburg Road is in charge of arrangements. Covington said a public memorial service would be held in May.