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Roots and Wings: Paula Thomas

Since COVID 19 brought our lives to a standstill, Paula Thomas has been spending her time feeding chickens (and one duck who identifies as a chicken), stocking her pond with fish, and making plans to add pastures and a barn to the new Thomas Family Farm in Murrells Inlet. She is also continuing her work serving as Judge Paula Thomas on the South Carolina Appellate Court – and is fortunately able to work from her desk in the farmhouse recently purchased by Paula and her husband, Don. This move marks a return to her rural roots, and the realization of a long held dream.

While both sets of grandparents spent their lives in Manning, South Carolina, Paula didn’t actually start her life as a country girl. Her father was in the military, and the family lived all over the world. It wasn’t until Paula reached third grade that her dad left active service and brought his family home – first to Sumter, and then back to Manning where she was loved and guided by a large extended family.

By the time the family moved back to Manning, one grandfather, her dad’s father, had passed, and her grandmother owned a farm, wrote for the local newspaper and even started her own newspaper. “She was always working on the farm and was also the librarian in Manning,” Paula remembers. “Her house was the informal SPCA – people would dump animals and Mabel Hinson would take care of them – I definitely inherited her love of nature.” Paula’s business acumen and drive for success were fostered by her other grandmother who owned a small business selling children’s clothing while continuing to care for her home and family. Paula’s mother was an RN and while she stayed home with Paula and her siblings, she went back to work after they were older – first as an RN and then a personnel manager. “I was surrounded by nothing but strong women,” she said, continuing. “My dad was always fond of animals as well. He was our informal veterinarian – and he was never much of a hunter, preferring to be the fixer-upper of animals.” Paula’s father recently found a sickly puppy in his pump house and after he nursed it back to health, he placed it in a good home – this value and care for all life is how Paula grew up.

When I asked how Don feels about country life, Paula said, “I took a city boy and slowly brought him into my rural mindset. I tell people Don and I are Green Acres in reverse.” She laughed telling me this, and emphasized how fortunate she feels to have such a supportive life partner. “It was a dream of mine to own this property,” Paula said, telling the story of how they found their home. “Don and I used to ride by the property and I’d call it ‘my property’ years before we were able to buy it.” Paula’s son, Austin, called her nearly a year ago, and said the property was for sale. “It looked a little different than I remembered – the owner had added acreage, and there was a house!”

This was a big move, and would change the Thomas’ everyday lives – initially Paula had doubts about their decision. But, not long after buying the property, Paula, who had lost her mother months before, began seeing white feathers randomly – and felt they were a sign from her mom. “I saw them everywhere – one morning I walked out onto the porch and saw yet another white feather and knew this was meant to be.” Paula’s return to her roots was now confirmed as the right thing to do.

Paula and Don just bought another lot, increasing the farm to seven acres. They have a pond and wetlands – and the property abuts a portion of Brookgreen Gardens. They’ve added chickens and a duck. “We took them in from a friend who could no longer keep them. My aunt has a donkey for me when we’re ready, and I have two mini-horses that are now therapy horses in Myrtle Beach.” As soon as Paula and Don finish the barn and pasture, these animals, plus her beloved, retired show horse will come live on the farm. “All the animals are boarded and being well cared for, so we can take our time,” Paula laughed when I asked her how many other animals would eventually make Thomas Farm their home, “Well my father used to call me Ellie Mae, so we will have to see!”

Paula also wants to use the farm to give back to her community. “I have lots of ideas – maybe open it up for people to come and enjoy. I feel so blessed, I would love to extend my blessings and share them. The farm lends itself to so many possibilities.”

As long as she can remember, Paula has loved horses and shared her joy in her first horse, Ranger. “When we moved back to Sumter, my dad asked me to go for a ride one day. We pulled up to a barn, walked in and he introduced me to the owner. And he brought Ranger out to meet me. I had him for many years and brought him to Manning when we moved.” Paula would take Ranger to her families’ lake house in the summer where the two would play in the lake. “Ranger figured out how to open the screen door and would clomp right in!”

As a woman with a successful career, I asked this amazing woman about how she dealt with the demands of career and family. Paula remembers always working while raising her three children – Austin, Kelly and Kristen. “I became almost bitter about it and confessed this to a group of ladies who had all stayed home with their children. I was surprised when they admitted they were looking at me with envy and sometimes felt bitter that they didn’t have the opportunity to pursue their careers – and that they didn’t feel their work staying home and raising children was very important. As a result of this talk, we all understood and had a new admiration for the paths we each chose.” Continuing, Paula said, “We all do the best we can. I really do embrace those women who are stay-at-home moms. I see my daughter-in-law doing it now, and I admire her. But if my daughters choose another path, I completely understand. You can’t have it all – but I learned from speaking honestly that we all have more in common than we realize.”

Paula’s climb up the ladder of success began with her work as a counselor. “While I was working, I realized the law was a way to help more people. I saw so many young people trying to get in to the pretrial intervention program, and there were inequities regarding who was allowed in and who wasn’t.” Paula went back to school to study law and when her oldest child, Austin, was a baby, the family moved to the area. “It was a challenging time. I was a brand new lawyer and was pregnant with twins (Kelly and Kristen).”

Paula’s search for justice for all led her to run for House of Representative Seat 108. “Don encouraged me so I ran in 1992 and represented District 108. It was there I was encouraged to become a judge.” In 1995, Paula was elected to the South Carolina Circuit Court Bench and resigned her seat in the House. In 2006, she ran for the Court of Appeals and has been there ever since.

“It’s an honor being part of a system that keeps society together. We have the best system of justice in the world – the best man has ever made. Each case has real people that are involved and looking for justice. They depend on the courts for that justice.”

As we continued, Paula talked about her life and family. “I’m so blessed to have a husband who always makes me laugh – he’s such a positive person and sees the world in a beautiful way – and my children have grown into really good people. Family ties are important.” Paula is also grateful to have her dad in her life. “I hang on his every word,” she laughed, but it was easy to feel the genuine emotion behind her words. The addition of a beautiful daughter in law and grandson, plus a new son-in-law make her life complete. “My grandson Boden has my heart already. I have big plans for fun times with him, and maybe I will be blessed with more grands!”

Family ties have given Paula a love of family, nature and learning – and a sense of responsibility to help those less fortunate. “If we really take the time to focus – on a flower or even an earthworm – if we look at it as if we’ve never seen it before you can’t help but be amazed and blessed. And God is good. That’s what being around the outdoors and animals does for me.”

“Hold on to your dream,” Paula said as we were finishing our chat. “You’re never too old or too young to dream – and make sure your dreams include the ones you love. If you can’t imagine them with you in your dream, dream another dream. It’s important that they’re included in your heart.”