His music has brought him around the world and back. This acclaimed jazz pianist has performed at St. Louis staples like the Sheldon Concert Hall and Powell Hall, as well as international venues such as Nanjing University in China and the University of Dubrovnik in Croatia. He is classically trained in both piano and pipe organ, and even used his talents to raise money for music scholarships by organizing and performing on a philanthropic CD.
A musical resume like that would be impressive for any pianist, but it’s only one aspect of the Renaissance man that is the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) chancellor, Thomas George.
To sit in George’s office is to peek inside the life of a beloved man. Photographs featuring lighthearted group shots are placed on the walls not merely at eye level, but nearly down to the floor, as space clearly is at a premium. Glance in the other direction to see a bit of UMSL pride or an honorary degree from an across-the-globe university. His large shelving unit is stuffed not only with items from his personal adventures, but ones that were given as gifts. And in the back of the office, in a smaller room, sits his keyboard, midst rows and rows of books.
From the Missouri Botanical Garden to the Lifelong Vision Foundation, George’s community influence reaches across the numerous nonprofit boards on which he serves. He has been praised publicly for his work many times, including honors such as St. Louis North County Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year, the Outstanding Community Service Award from the St. Louis County Branch of the NAACP, and the Silver Beaver Award from the Greater St. Louis Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America—a fitting honor for this Eagle Scout and current chair of Special Needs Committee, a scouting program designed for Boy Scouts of varying abilities.
Despite all the accolades, George is the kind of man who gets his own coffee, and asks if he can bring anything back for you.
To an outsider, the chancellor's daily schedule seems chaotic: Days often start with 7:30 a.m. breakfast appointments, followed by a day of meetings and an evening of events. But George can’t explain his days without noting the fact that it’s a team effort, singling out executive assistant Candi Agnew.
George, originally from Philadelphia, attended Gettysburg College, followed by Yale and postdoctoral appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of California, Berkeley. He says hadn’t planned on entering the administrative side of academia; but, after 13 years as a faculty member at the University of Rochester, he applied for deanship at SUNY Buffalo. “I don’t know why, but I did. I was in my 30s at the time, I’d never been a department chair, and I applied and became a dean,” he says. “The only difference between me and a lot of other deans is that I never turned off my research program.”
George’s research is specialized in nanoscience, and chemical, materials and laser physics. His research has earned him worldwide recognition and noteworthy grants, including some from the National Science Foundation, as well as the Army Research Office and North Atlantic Treaty Organization. His list of work is a document in itself, as his research led to more than 700 papers, as well as 18 edited and five authored books.
“[They say] that science and music are different sides of the brain, but with the kind of music I do, you have to improvise, you have to create on the spot. And in my research in science, it really is improvisation," he says. "Maybe there is more similarity than one thinks. And for that matter, doing administration, you have got to improvise, as well—you learn quickly there is no cookie-cutter approach.”
No matter the connection, George’s skills have all worked to better UMSL. “With the jazz-playing, I’ve been introduced to a number of people who have now become friends of the university, so it’s not all fun and games—it’s actually turned out to be ‘business.’"
During George’s 10 years at UMSL, the school has grown in scope and prestige: UMSL built its first residential hall and reported a 65 percent increase in endowed scholarships. Now, thanks to George—or rather, his impressive work that inspired others—a Thomas F. George Jubilee Scholarship was recently created in his honor and announced at the university’s 50th birthday celebration.