PLANT CITY – Bill and Gwen Thomas were the perfect fit for the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center’s annual award for historic preservation, Executive Director Gil Gott said.
They played key roles in the restoration of two landmarks that were important in local black history, the Bing Rooming House and Glover School, Gott said. Both buildings, once in sad shape and facing uncertain futures, have been returned to their glory in recent years with the Thomas’ help.
The 94-year-old Bing house at 205 Allen St. is now a museum and educational center while the more than 80 year old Glover School at 5110 Horton Road in Bealsville is a community center. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Gott said their efforts preserved the buildings for future generations.
“History fades so fast and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever,” he said.
The Thomases are the first married couple to receive the Heritage Award, presented since 2004 to someone who has made a long-term and lasting impact on preserving the area’s history, photo archives President Ed Verner said.
Thomas said he felt overwhelmed as he and his wife accepted the award.
“All history is very, very important,” he said. “Every day we all write a chapter in history and we need to preserve what we have so our children and grandchildren can see it.”
Several family members were on hand for the presentation, including the couple’s son, William Jr.; Bill’s father, Terry Thomas; Gwen’s mother Illinois Sparkman, and Gwen’s sister, Christine Parker.
The Thomases grew up in Plant City and met as teenagers at a basketball court at Christmas time, where Gwen was trying out a new pair of skates. They graduated a year apart from Marshall High School and married 45 years ago.
Bill joined the Army and served around the world, including a year as a military police officer in Vietnam, before retiring after 24 years of service and returning home. He is the head of the forensics department at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
State Sen. Tom Lee, who couldn’t attend the March 27 banquet, wrote a letter that was read during the ceremony calling the couple “pillars of the community.”
Ann Owens and her daughter Candy Owens were presented with the other major award of the night, named for longtime and tireless archives volunteer Bill Parolini, who died in 2008.
Ann Owens, who is retired, generally works behind the scenes at the archives, putting together photo displays and other work that helps keep the archives running smoothly, Gott said. Candy Owens, who is a secretary at the archives, volunteers lots of hours of her own time, Gott said.
Candy Owens grew up in Plant City and has a great memory that makes her a walking history book, Gott said.
Past Parolini recipient Anne Haywood, who is library director of Bruton Memorial Library, presented the award to the mother and daughter.
She said volunteers are important part of any organization, be it the library or the photo archives.
“I love volunteers. I volunteer myself,” Haywood said. “The world would not run without volunteers.”
HERITAGE AWARD WINNERS
2004: David E. Bailey Jr.
2005: James L. Redman
2006: Robert Trinkle
2007: B.M. “Mac” Smith Jr. and Betty Barker Watkins
2008: Hal Brewer
2009: Gladys Jeffcoat
2010: James A. “Sonny’ Jones
2011: Bob Edwards
2012: Dr. Maribeth Mobley
2013: Myrle Henry
2014: Bill and Gwen Thomas
BILL PAROLINI AWARD WINNERS
Mary Jane Parolini, Tim Martin, Linda Smith, Bill Thomas, Betty Patton, Lou Baird, Anne Haywood, David Patton, Lavon Dudley, Ann Owens and Candy Owens.