Thomas’s scholarship provides preference for students from rural Illinois.

Small town, big impact

After his brain-tumor diagnosis, Chicago Booth employee Brian Thomas set up a scholarship fund for UChicago undergrads.

A bad day in 1986 turned into the best years of Brian Thomas and Mark Fogle’s lives. After a miserable interview for a job he wasn’t sure he even wanted, Thomas attended his uncle’s funeral, then came home to water pouring into his St. Louis kitchen from a broken gutter that was gushing through a light fixture.

“He threw up his hands, swore a bit, and finally decided he needed a roommate,” says Fogle. “Fortunately for me, he went to the company housing office and found my posting.” They both worked for McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing)—Thomas as a programmer analyst, Fogle in electronics engineering—and both needed a roommate.

Shortly after moving in together on June 26, 1986, the pair began dating. They married in 2008 and were partners until December 2016, when Thomas died from brain cancer at age 55.

Moving to Chicago in 1990, Thomas and Fogle physically built their lives together, remodeling their Lakeview condo to create the perfect home for what Fogle describes as a couple of homebodies who enjoyed staying in and watching sci-fi shows like Battlestar Galactica. “We both had ‘thinking’ jobs, so it was nice to put a hammer in your hand once in a while,” Fogle says.

For more than 20 years, Thomas’s “thinking” job was with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where he served as the director of application development for the Center for Research in Securities Prices. Starting out as a database programmer, he became known for his problem solving. His supervisors gave him managerial responsibilities, Fogle says, and he eventually oversaw a team of about 20 developers.

When the fast-moving illness prevented Thomas from going to work, it hit him hard. “When he was out on leave, his coworkers made a video for him, wishing him well and wanting to see him back at work,” Fogle says. “He was never able to watch it. He was just too overcome with emotion.”

Diagnosed in spring 2015 after a seizure at work, Thomas began to take stock of his legacy. By summer 2016 he decided to give back to his employer. “He liked that the University had a world-class reputation,” says Fogle. “Providing a quality education to young minds is a different value proposition than a widget-making company. It gave him a sense of pride to be associated with it.”

Fogle reached out to the Office of Gift Planning and worked with senior director Denise Chan Gans, who met with the couple to discuss their options. “We were not knowledgeable about this process and didn’t know the differences between setting up a scholarship and a foundation,” Fogle says. “After talking to [Gans], it seemed to make the most sense to set up an Odyssey Scholarship in his name.” The Brian J. Thomas Odyssey Scholarship Fund provides preference for students from rural Illinois, where Thomas was born and raised.

“Being able to focus his scholarship to help kids from rural downstate Illinois was a twofer,” says Fogle. Coming from Lenzburg, Illinois, a town of fewer than 500 people, Thomas “wanted to help kids from his kind of background to come to a large, international city like Chicago and live and learn from people that are different from themselves, to be exposed to new ideas.”

This December, the first anniversary of his husband’s death, Fogle plans to spend some quality time with his in-laws and retrace the “Christmas triangle” he and Thomas used to drive visiting their families in downstate Illinois and Indiana. But what he really hopes is that when Thomas’s friends think of him, they think of the fund. “When Christmas comes around,” Fogle says, “I want nothing but donations in his memory.”

Back to Building for the Future newsletter