Some things are as natural as life.
For Jim Thomas of Lander, working for the Wyoming Highway Department (which later became the Wyoming Department of Transportation) was a boyhood ambition, a career, a family legacy, and the family business.
Then a high school student at his hometown Hot Springs County High School in Thermopolis, Thomas remembers watching highway department workers outside the second-story window of the high school library.
“Even back then, I wanted to work for the highway department,” Thomas says. “I even wrote in my high school yearbook that I wanted to plow snow on Togwotee Pass.”
This passion for plowing deep snow came from childhood visits to a friend’s cabin on Togwotee Pass, west of Dubois, and watching highway department workers plowing U.S. 26/287 in the 1970s.
Thomas, 59, retires April 1, and he will officially join his wife, Stacey, at their new home in Basin, where Stacey has been working for the Big Horn County treasurer’s office for about a year.
“I wanted to retire with 40 years of service, and April 1 was my mom Mary’s birthday. So, that’s the perfect day,” Thomas says.
Thomas is legendary for his standard friendly greeting and smile to people he meets, and he knows many people throughout northwest Wyoming. “I ask about their family. It helps me check in on their mood and how they are doing. Talking about family tends to put everyone in a positive mood,” he says. “Being positive and proactive have carried me in my life.”
Thomas’ highway department career began March 30, 1981, starting shortly after his 1980 high school graduation. “I started as a Maintenance Worker 1 at age 19. I remember lots of flagging in traffic, filling potholes and driving truck,” he says. Thomas was promoted to Maintenance Worker 2 after a year, then later became an Equipment Operator.
Today’s maintenance worker requirements (adopted in 1991) include being age 21 to hold a commercial driver’s license. Not then.
Thomas worked in Thermopolis for 10 years, leaving in October 1991 to become Heavy Equipment Operator on South Pass. Fresh starts and learning new things became patterns in Thomas’ career. He promoted to Maintenance Foreman on South Pass in 1995. He transferred to Lovell in 2003. He promoted to Area Maintenance Supervisor in Lander in 2013.
As area maintenance supervisor, Thomas supervises the South Pass, Lander, Riverton and Dubois crews, and he fulfilled his high school dream of plowing snow on Togwotee Pass.
“I’ve always tried to better myself professionally, kind of like how I push my son to do better,” Thomas says. “I have enjoyed moving about every 10-12 years. Moving gave me the feeling of having a new job where I could learn new things, and take advantage of opportunities. We’ve always found every place we’ve lived to be neat in its own way.”
Thomas has been near when WYDOT’s maintenance focus placed added emphasis on safety, including adding auxiliary turning lanes off highways, calming traffic by transitioning from 4-land to 3-lane roadways through small towns, clearing roadside brush to help drivers see deer, and adding better ways of communicating (cell phones) at remote working stations. He also became actively involved wherever he lived, serving on the Fremont County Rural Fire Department in Atlantic City (Battalion 9), on the Big Horn School District No. 1 School Board, on the fire district board of directors, the solid waste district board, and in other areas.
Thomas witnessed improvements in how WYDOT conducts its maintenance business, too, which have saved money and improved efficiency, especially in times of shrinking state-funded budgets.
He witnessed snowplowing improvements when carbide-tipped cutting blades were first installed on snowplows. “Before carbide blades, we had to change our cutting blades after every snowstorm. Now, a set of carbide blades will last nearly an entire snow season, except in our mountain areas,” Thomas says.
“When I started in Thermopolis, our trucks were gas powered, and the sanders were gas powered. We drive diesels now, and our sanders run on hydraulics. Diesels were huge, as we went from 80 gallons of fuel used in an 8-hour shift to 17 gallons of fuel with diesel engines,” Thomas says.
Beginning to use a bulldozer to clear U.S. 14A above Lovell has shortened the time it takes to open the high mountain roadway every spring. Thomas trained for that task in the Laramie Range, and he brought that skill to northwest Wyoming.
Moving from South Pass to Lovell was the biggest transition of Thomas’ career, “when I went from plowing snow 10 months a year on South Pass to working in temperatures of nearly 100 degrees in Lovell, and working with farmers, irrigation and other things in Lovell. But I still had my mountain to take care of – U.S. 14A (between Lovell and Burgess Junction).”
Thomas’ career has always been about improving life for his family, too. Thomas married his wife, Stacey, May 25, 1991, in Thermopolis. They moved to South Pass in September 1991. On South Pass, Thomas and his wife became parents to their children, Payton and Aspen. When it was time for Payton to start school, the family moved to Lovell, and later, Lander. “I told Stacey 5 years on South Pass, and we stayed 12,” he remembers.
Thomas is proud of his wife, a former EMT on South Pass, and his children, Payton and Aspen. “These days, Payton calls me about 3 times weekly, and we tell snow-plowing stories. It’s funny how that happened, because my boy has a degree in business and marketing and he loves WYDOT,” Thomas says. “Aspen will probably end up taking care of all of us, as she’s studying to be a nurse at Casper College.”
Thomas is the 4th son in a family of 8 children raised in Thermopolis.
WYDOT in 2021 is a proud family business for Thomas, his brothers, and now, his son. Thomas’ brother Neil Thomas is a 28-year WYDOT maintenance worker stationed in Riverton, his brother Glen Thomas is a member of the Thermopolis maintenance crew, his brother Scott Thomas is maintenance foreman of the Basin maintenance crew, and today, son Payton is a member of the Laramie maintenance crew. His sister, Ellen, also worked for the engineering and maintenance crews in Thermopolis.
Thomas says highway work is a second-, third-generation passion shared by his family that goes back to the Utah Department of Transportation and his uncle who worked 33 years serving Utah citizens. “Our uncles worked on gravel crushers and in road construction,” he says. “This all started 2 or 3 generations ago. It’s in our blood, a natural fit for our families.”
Transportation, the family business, has served Thomas well for 4 decades.
“I’ve remained focused on safety,” Thomas says. “Our people are good.”
In retirement, he plans to build a garage and fencing at his new home in Basin, and he’ll focus on his many hobbies. “Mostly, I’ll be relaxing and enjoying Wyoming,” Thomas says. “I have a bucket list of places I want to visit in Wyoming. I’ve never been to Lusk, you know, Lusk, Wyoming. I’m going to get a motorcycle, and I plan to ride motorcycles with my daughter.”
Thomas recently purchased a shotgun. “I’m planning to go turkey hunting this spring, and I want to call in a turkey,” he says.