“Criminal” past inspires generosity


Jennifer Priest Mitchell

Yuma has more “Criminals” than some realize, and Charlotte Thomas (Elem Ed, ’83)  is proud that she is a “real” Yuma Criminal—a 1966 graduate of Yuma High School, whose trademark mascot is a line drawing of a fierce, stereotypical old criminal. The mascot came about after the high school was temporarily housed in the former Yuma Territorial Prison for several years in the 1910s.

“Yuma,” says Thomas, “is where my roots are and where I learned values, from my family and community, such as the importance of giving back. 

“It’s a big city now – a city of about 100,000 people, with more than 250,000 in the area, plus an estimated 85,000 winter visitors. But when I was a teenager, it was a community of about 24,000 people. We had just one high school, and my family lived in the first subdivision after World War II, Pecan Grove, named for how the land was used.” Much of Yuma’s history is related to what grows there and who grows it.

Yuma glows green in the middle of the desert – its fields of produce representing the rich agricultural history of the area. Farmers there grow over 40 kinds of vegetables and melons on more than 90,000 acres of land. If you eat a salad in the U.S. or parts of Canada during the winter months, the iceberg lettuce on your plate was most likely grown in the Yuma area. 

“Our family’s history began in this area as far back as 1894, when my great-great uncle, known in the family as Uncle Billy, was one of four original filers on the Fortuna gold mine outside Yuma. He came from upstate New York to escape the cold and seek opportunities. He sold his share in the mine before it became very lucrative and tried other enterprises, but nothing paid off as well for him as the mine did for the others.”

Later, his nephew, Charles W. Thomas (Charlotte’s grandfather), also came to Yuma from upstate New York for similar reasons. He tried a number of money-making ventures, including farming. She says, “When none of those really panned out, he learned to be a barber. He married Vesta Sturges, whose family had come to Yuma in 1907 from Missouri. After his downtown Yuma barber shop flooded for the third time, the family moved to Long Beach, California in 1921. ‘The family’ included my father, Chuck, and his younger brother, Merle.  It was cooler in Long Beach, and the floods from the Colorado River weren’t a threat.” 

Her father served in the U.S. Army during World War II and met her mother, Ruth Barter, in Tacoma, Washington in early 1941. They married in August 1944, knowing that Chuck would be getting orders to go overseas. 

After the war, the couple came to Yuma, where Charlotte and a younger sister, also an ASU graduate, were born and raised. When the girls were growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, the town’s economy was based on two military bases and the increasingly profitable agriculture business. 

Cotton, wheat, alfalfa, Bermuda grass seed and citrus trees were the main crops in the area’s agricultural economy. “Yuma really began to grow when air conditioning was available, and produce such as lettuce and broccoli were added to the crops. Changes in technology, like refrigerating produce for shipping, mechanical picking and more efficient irrigation also caused agriculture to become even more economically important.  Winter tourism is now a significant addition to the economy.” 

Thomas notes that “even in the midst of all the food being grown, the poverty and hunger rates in Yuma County are significant. The poverty rate is 20 percent, and the rate of food insecurity is high. About 35 percent of students don’t know where their next meal is coming from.” She says the needs of the local community are what inspire her and others to be involved with local organizations, even long after leaving the area to pursue higher education.  

Thomas was able to begin college at Arizona State University due to a cash grant from the ASU Alumni Association. She recalls, “The award was $250 per year when tuition was much lower.” To help pay her tuition, after her sophomore year she became a student employee at the Memorial Union.

“I inherited the family genes for adventure,” says Thomas. “I wanted more than a career, condo and car in the Phoenix area.”  In 1974, she left ASU and her job as business manager of the MU, and she moved to Alaska. 

During those years in Alaska, when the economy and jobs went up and down, she says, “I used my teacher training in non-traditional ways: analyzing information, preparing information for the public, including non-road connected communities; and using responses from the public to inform decisions.”  Working in a variety of fields, she had to learn new vocabulary. “The terms weren’t exactly crossword puzzle words,” she laughs.  She worked as an escrow officer, in public information for state and federal agencies and in community and neighborhood organizations. 

In 1983, Thomas returned to ASU temporarily to finish her education degree.  She moved back to Arizona in 1997 and settled in Prescott Valley, again using her education background to find work in a variety of fields. Her last work was in adult basic education at Yavapai College, writing and teaching curriculum for GED, English as a second language and other basic classes.

In 2015, when ASU began to offer programs at Arizona Western College,  Thomas organized a mini-tour of the area for the dean of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and other ASU representatives. She says, “It was an opportunity to see that there’s more to Yuma than I-8, fast food and sand dunes.  Members of historically significant families and area agricultural families explained the context of Yuma’s history, geography and economy. The ‘extended learning’ part of the tour and program included a 10-question trivia quiz about Yuma history and its people.” Her pride in and excitement about this project mirror her pride in and loyalty to Yuma and her family’s roots there.

Thomas has reflected often on the legacy of her parents. “My parents reinforced to me that it’s important to be a good steward of both small and large endeavors. My parents taught me that much is required of those to whom much is given.”  She knows that they scrimped and saved and lived in the same house for almost 50 years. It was important to them that their children have a better life than they did, and that others could also be helped. “Yuma is where I learned what I continue today – to give back.” 

Appreciative of the grant from the Alumni Association that allowed her to start her college education, Thomas began donating to ASU, including to Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She also designated an estate gift of unrestricted funds to the college where her own journey began.

She adds, “I understand that people have different reasons for giving. I just know that what I learned from my parents is the importance of giving and the satisfaction it brings to know you’ve helped someone else in some way.”