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Claire Thomas | 1923-2020


Beloved mother, grandma, great-grandma, aunt and friend Claire Sherman Thomas left us peacefully in the early morning hours of December 9, 2020. Born to Mary and Arthur Sherman on October 14, 1923 in Detroit, Michigan, Claire was the fifth of six children. She grew up in the Motor City during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, and carried those qualities of boundless vitality and determined thriftiness with her throughout her long, adventurous and accomplished life.

After giving the salutatorian address and graduating from Detroit’s Southeastern High School, Claire earned a degree in economics at the University of Michigan. While in college, she worked her way up the ranks at “The Michigan Daily” newspaper from cub reporter to senior editor. These were the World War II years, and she gained a great respect for the newspaper’s task of keeping the public informed of current events, from local to international. During the summers, she worked at the family pharmaceutical business, Sherman Laboratories.

Claire continued her education, enrolling as one of only two female law school students accepted in 1946 to the University of Michigan Law School. During this time, she took flying lessons, a popular post-war activity. She loved flying, including learning how to do ‘stalls and spins.’ But, having not yet learned to drive a car, she found approaching the runway for landing to be very unnerving. To her mother’s great relief, she decided to forego further lessons.

Encouraged by an uncle who advised her to ‘Go West, Young Woman,’ Claire, by now in possession of a law degree and a driver’s license, drove from Detroit to the Pacific Northwest, accompanied by her father and younger brother Don. She landed in the Emerald City of Seattle but, despite being licensed to practice law in both Michigan and Washington, was unable to secure a position as anything more than a research associate at a bank. In those days, refusing women jobs for which they had more than the necessary qualifications was not considered discrimination.

It was not long before a mutual friend introduced her to an insurance broker named Eldred Thornton ‘Tommy’ Thomas. Claire and Tommy shared an abiding love for each other and for exploring their adopted state of Washington, with all its diverse beauty. Their second date already showed a collaborative spirit — Tommy had a sailboat and trailer but no car, while Claire had the car she’d driven west in. Combining assets, they got the boat launched and went sailing. Despite getting drenched, Claire loved being on the water and had a great time.

They married in 1950 and settled on Lake Washington’s east side, with a view across the lake to the fast-growing city of Seattle and the Olympic Mountains in the distance. During the 1950’s, their five children were born. Then followed busy family years, with many camping trips to the mountains, the seacoast, and the San Juan Islands. Moran State Park on Orcas Island was a favorite destination, and stays at Camp Orkila became an integral part of their summer experiences.

Claire always encouraged her children to follow their own paths, which they did, scattering to many destinations as they grew up. But before they all flew the nest, Claire planned and coordinated a very successful summer exploration trip through Northern Europe, with the entire family and all their camping gear packed into a VW Bus. A highlight of this trip was a visit to special friend, Magnhild Soldal, and her family on their farm in Lofthus, Norway.

With the children grown and more time for herself, Claire went back to school at the University of Washington, earning a Master of Arts degree in philosophy. A strong advocate for women’s rights, she was instrumental in establishing the Women’s Studies program at the University of Washington, where she developed and taught courses in the program. Her efforts and accomplishments were recognized when a special, family-friendly ‘remote learning center’ suite at the UW law school was named in her honor. Also during this time she researched and wrote the book “Sex Discrimination in a Nutshell,” part of the acclaimed Nutshell series of reference works. This prescient work is equally if not more important today than when first published. Although Claire retired from college teaching in 1995, she volunteered as an English as a Second Language (ESL) tutor to immigrants and refugees for another decade.

During all this time, Claire stayed fit by swimming up to a mile a day, which gave her the energy to keep up with her lively grandchildren. She especially loved introducing them to the wonder of words and the marvelous worlds quietly lying between the covers of books, waiting to be discovered. Claire also very much enjoyed choral singing and sang in several area choirs, including George Shangrow’s Chorus and the Kirkland Choral Society, giving her an opportunity to learn and perform both traditional and modern choral masterworks. An enthusiastic traveler, she enjoyed visits to her far-flung children including trips to Southeast Asia to see youngest daughter Anne. Other memorable trips were to China in 1995 for the International Women’s Conference, and a Colorado River rafting trip through the Grand Canyon with Tommy, when they were both well into their 70’s.

Claire also took up watercolor painting and had a wonderful time exploring that media and creating bright, cheerful cards and prints for family and friends. This interest led to another special trip, a ‘watercolor workshop cruise’ through the Mediterranean Sea. Claire was delighted when her work was showcased in a gallery at Bellevue Library.

For many years, Claire and Tommy spent time at their beloved Sunset Cabin on Orcas Island. Claire moved to the cabin full time several years ago. She joined the Orcas Choral Society and very much appreciated being part of the wonderful music the choir rehearsed for performance in their popular Christmas and Spring concerts.

She could also be found enjoying lunch and conversation at the Orcas Senior Center, and continuing her tradition of lap swimming at the Eastsound pool. She carried on with these activities right up until the Covid-19 crisis shut everything down in mid-March, 2020.

Although isolated, Claire cherished the lovely summer months at Sunset Cabin, going for ‘socially-distanced’ walks with family, sitting on her deck enjoying the views and the hummingbirds at their feeder — which she faithfully brought in every night to prevent the raccoon from drinking the nectar — and even baking bread to share with ‘deck company.’ She lived independently until shortly before her 97th birthday but then went into a sudden, steep decline. In those last weeks, she was lovingly cared for by family members and others. In particular, the family would like to thank friend and neighbor Chama for her invaluable help, and team members Debra and Elizabeth of Hospice of the Northwest for providing capable, compassionate assistance.

Claire was preceded in death by her husband of 60 years, Eldred Thornton “Tommy” Thomas, her sister Marjorie, and her brother Art. She is survived by her brothers George, Ralph and Don Sherman, by her children and their spouses: Craig Thomas and Susan Scott of Oahu, Elaine Thomas and John Sledd of Bremerton, Irene Thomas Wood and Dan Wood of Fairbanks, Burke Thomas and Barbara Benham Thomas of Orcas Island, and Anne Thomas of Cambodia; by niece Joan Thomas of Los Angeles; by nine grandchildren and their spouses and partners; by four great-grandchildren; by many nieces, nephews and extended relatives in her large family, and by a strong network of friends.

Regardless of family affiliation, she was often thought of as ‘Grandma Claire’ or ‘Aunt Claire’ by those who knew and loved her, and she will live on in many memories. Although Claire’s soul has taken flight, she has left us with a unique and inspiring legacy of generosity and wonder, engagement and accomplishment.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations in Claire’s memory be made to charitable and non-profit organizations of the donor’s choice. Thank you.

An online memorial has been set up at Whidbey Memorial for Claire. Please share your messages, memories, and photos here: