Following are personal memoirs from her teacher colleagues.
From Leah Brammer:
I first met Merna Thomas in 1981 when I began working on a Masters degree at Holy Names. From the
beginning, Merna connected me to a deeper purpose for my music studies and teaching. Her energy and wisdom
pervaded every class, lesson, recital, and meeting.
Teaching at the Holy Names preparatory department was a great opportunity for me to learn from Merna. As I was teaching she would slip in and observe. Later, she would listen attentively to the story about that student, give encouragement, and offer advice.
Having Merna as my mentor at Holy Names College was a direct experience of Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy of “Nurtured by Love”.
From Amelie Mel de Fontenay, M.A.
Merna Thomas-- as soon as I think about her, I get a spontaneous smile on my face. As a young Suzuki teacher in 1976 I found her incredibly inspiring: as a leader among teachers, a colleague, and a friend. I loved her contagious energy and enthusiasm, which always stimulated me to learn more, reach higher, try to become a better teacher myself. She attracted so many wonderful colleagues from varied musical contexts, catalyzed collaborative projects while keeping a low profile herself, thought outside the box, inspired us. I will always be grateful to Merna for her leadership in our teaching community, and for the lasting friendships I began long ago under her sphere of influence. We were so lucky to have her, we owe her so much, she will always be deeply appreciated and fondly remembered.
From Carol Hess:
I first became acquainted with Merna Thomas in May 1980. A callow twenty-five year-old, I had just moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to seek my fortune as a pianist and piano teacher. Several of the sisters at what was then called Holy Names College urged me, “You must call Merna Thomas.” When I did so, I was struck by the friendly voice on the other end of the phone, along with the uproarious laugh that frequently punctuated our brief conversation. I must have felt right at home talking with Merna, because I blurted out something like “Hey, let’s have lunch sometime, okay?” never imagining she would be my “boss” someday.
Without skipping a beat, she assumed a confidential tone. “Well, you know,” she explained, “I’m over fifty years old.”
Of course we had the proposed lunch and many more, along with dinners, breakfasts, and parties. And let’s not forget the famous mimosa brunches that launched every season in the prep department. But now that I myself am “over fifty years old,” I find myself remembering not only Merna’s ebullience (the laugh was but one external sign) but her supreme delicacy. From our first conversation, she let me know the difference in our ages, thinking, perhaps, that a young newcomer such as myself might feel odd or uncomfortable in the presence of an older person. Of course, one could never feel uncomfortable with Merna, who was younger in spirit than practically anyone else I’ve known. Having lost my own mother not too long before I moved out West, I soon began thinking of her as my “California mom.” Now that she’s gone, I marvel all the more at how readily she and Ralph opened their hearts not just to me but to so many others who, knowingly or not, learned about generosity, empathy, and the gift of being non-judgmental from both of them and for so many years.
Merna touched so many lives. I daresay that many of us, whenever we chance to hear a wild bellow of a laugh, perhaps of a stranger, or when we suddenly find ourselves the recipient of an unexpected bear-hug, we’ll think of Merna. Even in random moments, her joy in living will be with us for as long as we can remember.
From Caroline Fraser:
I first met Merna at a Suzuki piano workshop in 1975. I was young, new to the United States and new to the Suzuki world. Immediately, Merna made me feel welcome and comfortable, encouraging me to come to meetings, share ideas, and of course have a good time. Merna was my first mentor, and asked me to give my first teacher training course in the USA in 1987 at Holy Names University in Oakland.
Merna Thomas showed all of us how to live the Suzuki philosophy. She was a natural leader, forming a joyful and friendly learning community with every project she was involved with. She was inspirational and her joy of life was contagious.
In July 2010, we celebrated 25 years of Teacher Training Piano Institutes at HNU. We held a special dinner in honour of Merna. Needless to say, Merna was the life and soul of the party. Merna’s spirit lives on!
From Katharine Baird, Director of Holy Names University Preparatory Department:
The Preparatory Music Department is grateful to Merna for her many years of dedication to the program, as well as to numerous of its teachers over the years. She is missed by many. In Merna’s honor, the HNU Preparatory Music Department has created The Ralph & Merna Thomas Scholarship Fund. The HNU Preparatory Music Department faculty is pleased that Merna’s legacy will continue by providing music education to students in the Oakland, CA area.
Merna introduced the Suzuki piano method to the Holy Names College Preparatory Department in 1974, blazing the trail for Suzuki piano in the San Francisco Bay area. She created a community of learners at Holy Names College that expanded the Preparatory Music Department from 30 students to over 400. She taught Suzuki teacher training classes as semester classes at Holy Names College, and was a vital part of the undergraduate as well as graduate curriculum for piano majors. She was also a founding member and first president of the Suzuki Music Association of California Bay Area Piano Branch. Later she became the chair of the Music Department at Holy Names University and was instrumental in the building of the Valley Center for the Performing Arts and in developing many music festivals, workshops, recitals and concerts.
Merna Thomas passed away on August 28, 2010. Her family and numerous friends will miss her beyond words. Her memorial service, which was held on September 26 at the Valley Center for the performing Arts Regent Theatre at Holy Names University, was a concert and a celebration of her life.
Founding Member and First President
with memoirs and photos from
Amelia Mel de Fontenay, Carol Hess,
Caroline Fraser and Katharine Baird
Merna Thomas was one of the pioneers of the Suzuki Piano method in the United States. She captivated the spirit of Dr. Suzuki and inspired all those who were around her.
She nurtured many people to become Suzuki teachers. Several of her former students performed at the memorial service as well as colleagues from Holy Names University. It was evident how many people were influenced and mentored by her teaching. Thank-you for everything Merna!
The Thomas Scholarship Fund
The Holy Names University Preparatory Music Department created The Thomas Scholarship Fund in honor of Merna and her husband Ralph. For more information, contact Katherine Baird at
510-436-1224, or Contact Us. Donations are tax-deductible.