Frugal and private, an alumnus who loved books left
Frugal and private, an alumnus who loved
books left millions to the UGA Libraries
by Lori Johnston (ABJ ’95)
photos by Peter Frey (BFA ’94)
ven as he slowly amassed a fortune of nearly $4 million,
through owning stock in Georgia-grown companies
such as Coca-Cola, and penny-pinching grocery bills,
Sidney Samuel Thomas loved splurging on books and the
Thomas (BBA ’46, MAJ ’50) devoured three to four books
a week, even in the days before he died at age 89. Armed with
release dates, the voracious reader—and retired librarian—
visited Barnes & Noble weekly to buy the newest biographies,
novels and other books.
“He always had a book. He was consumed until he got
finished with the book,” says Thomas’ cousin, Bill McGraw
(BSA ’71, MEd ’72).
When he died of congestive heart failure in May 2012
he left his fortune, believed to be worth between $3 million
and $4 million once the estate is fully settled, to the UGA
Libraries. Thomas designated the money be used to buy
books and help pay for construction of the Richard B. Russell
Building Special Collections Libraries.
Thomas’ love of books and investing began at an early
age. He put money into stocks as a 10-year-old in the 1930s.
Thomas, who served in World War II, referenced buying
more stock in letters to his mother.
He was a quiet and private man, and few people likely
knew of his amassed wealth.
24 GEORGIA MAGAZINE • www.uga.edu/gm
The late Sidney Samuel Thomas, a retired librarian, left an estate
worth $3 million to $4 million to the UGA Libraries.
JUNE 2013 • GEORGIA MAGAZINE
Thomas was a Phi Beta Kappa at UGA
earing an undergraduate degree in finance
and a master’s in Enlish.
“He was this little old man that
nobody knew. He was not flashy,”
But he spent money on the things
he held dear. On what he once called a
“paltry” salary, he built a book collection
that included signed first editions and
early review copies of books.
Some of his book purchases became
stories in themselves. Thomas acquired
his most prized literary possession, a first
edition of the racy novel Lolita, while
working as a civilian librarian during the
1950s at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
He traveled to Paris for the book and
later told McGraw that entering the
bookstore felt like going into a “house
of ill repute.” When he asked for the
book, the shopkeeper looked around,
then pulled it out from underneath the
counter. Vladimir Nabokov’s novel cost
$6, but was valued at $10,000 when
26 GEORGIA MAGAZINE • www.uga.edu/gm
Thomas, who never married and did not
have children, donated it to the UGA
Libraries three years ago.
The book lover practiced Ebenezer
Scrooge-like frugality. He relentlessly
checked grocery receipts before leaving
the store to see if the cashier made
any errors. “You would always factor
in an extra 10 minutes because he was
going to sit there and go over this list,”
McGraw recalls. “You know what? You’d
be surprised. About every third time, he
would find something and get it free.”
When the air conditioning on
Thomas’ 1986 Honda broke a year after
he got the car, he didn’t pay to fix it and
endured the heat for 20 years. “He’d come
home and be soaking wet,” McGraw
McGraw finally told him he
had to buy a new car. Thomas spent
$16,000 on a new 2006 Toyota with
air conditioning, but wasn’t willing
to pay for power windows. Thomas
even scrimped on buying paper towels,
instead taking them from his gym after
“If he got a bill and there was an
extra $2 charge, he would spend hours
trying to find out that $2 charge. I
guess that’s how you get $4 million, if
you pinch every penny,” McGraw says.
Thomas moved back to Athens in
1985 after retiring as an acquisitions
Bill McGraw shows items for sale that belonged to Thomas. McGraw is one of Thomas’
cousins and handled the estate sale.
librarian at Georgia State University, returning to the home his
family bought in 1936. The kitchen, with black-and-white tile
countertops, was left unchanged since 1930. Thomas made small
investments in the two-bedroom brick home, including turning a
screened porch into a sunroom where he often read.
But like any complex character in the novels Thomas loved
by authors such as John Updike, he was willing to spend money
on high-quality and one-of-a-kind items. He invested in highend furniture from Henkel Harris, hand-painted Japanese screens
and artwork, including an oil painting by Robert Meredith (BFA
’63). His wardrobe included pricey Brooks Brothers shirts and
handmade sweaters from Ireland, Iceland and England.
“Over time, he would call it treating himself and buy
something nice, but then it was back to the straight and narrow
for a while,” McGraw says.
Thomas weekly bagged up books and donated them to the
UGA Libraries, just one-and-a-half miles from his tree-lined
street in the Five Points neighborhood. In March, nearly 100
people lined up to attend an estate sale that included furniture
from the late 1800s and early 1900s, military uniforms and
Sales of items, ranging from $6 to $800, raised another
$20,000, McGraw says. Some of Thomas’ books were among the
2,000 hardbacks and paperbacks the UGA Libraries sold in his
shady backyard over the weekend. As kids, college students and
adults filled boxes and plastic bags with books, some took home
with them a piece of Thomas’ legacy at UGA.
The legacy also includes the Sidney Samuel Thomas
Biography Collection and the Sidney Samuel Thomas Modern
Literature Collection, both created by donations from his
personal library. The rotunda in the special collections library is
named for him in honor of his gifts to UGA.
In a piece that was printed in the Libraries newsletter,
Beyond the Pages, in spring 2012, Thomas wrote: “Two hundred
years from now a student may wander into the Rotunda of the
Russell Special Collections Library and, seeing my name grandly
sweeping up the curving staircase to the second floor, ask ‘Who
was this Sidney Samuel Thomas?’ If he reads the plaque he will
discover that he was a man who loved books and the University
of Georgia and did something about it.”
Want to give?
To make a gift to the UGA Libraries, contact Chantal Dunham
at (706) 542-0628 or [email protected].
The estate sale, which raised $20,000, included items that
Thomas prized, like high-end furniture and hand-painted
Library gift book coordinator Jeanette Morgan prepares
books for the Thomas estate sale.
JUNE 2013 • GEORGIA MAGAZINE