Grounded 89-year-old alum can’t stay on the ground

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Graduate of St. Mike’s says she’s thankful there is a place in the Pontiac area for kids to come for a high-quality Catholic education.

Barbara (Croteau) Thomas turns 90 this November, a milestone worthy of celebration and praise. One would think this alum of St. Michael, Class of 1945, would be looking forward to a quiet and relaxing little party with family and friends. 

But for Thomas, nothing about her past 89 birthdays would suggest quiet and relaxing are part of her M.O. at all. That’s because in addition to being a willing participant in a life “well-lived,” Thomas has been an advocate of — and participant in — extreme sports for most of her golden years.

“Life is good and I live it everyday,” she said recently during an interview with the Notre Dame Alumni Association. “Every morning I thank God and say, ‘Good morning, Abba, take my hand and like a child let me walk or fly with you for all of my days.’”

And boy, has He taken her hand! In the past few decades, while her peers have been shuffleboarding and watching daily episodes of Jeopardy, Thomas has been paragliding, parasailing, white-water rafting down the Colorado River, zip-lining through a rainforest, riding on hot air balloons and sky diving.

“I have to live life to the fullest,” she said. “Believe it or not, I was never really a sports person, but it is just so much fun being up in the air and close to God and heaven!”

High-school hijinks

Thomas grew up in the Pontiac area and attended St. Michael, commonly called St. Mike’s, a coeducational Catholic high school in Pontiac. In 1967, the school merged with Pontiac St. Frederick High School to form Pontiac Catholic High School, which would eventually become Notre Dame Preparatory School.

She loved her time at St. Mike’s — Latin was her favorite subject — even though, she said, her three brothers, who also attended the school, were a handful.

“I can remember one of my brothers dipping a classmate’s braids into the ink bottle,” she said. “My three younger brothers used to get in a ton of trouble, but I don’t think I ever did.” 

In fact, as an all-A student who demonstrated infinitely more maturity than her brothers, the nuns would ask her to help get her brothers on track. “For a time, I actually hated being related to them.”

She brought up another youthful ‘indiscretion,’ but this time her brothers had an accomplice. 

“When we were younger, probably not yet in high school, I remember the nuns used to put their milk jugs outside every week for the milkman,” she said. “One time my brothers and I switched all the milk jugs with beer bottles from our dad’s store across the street.”

Thomas concedes, though, that her brothers weren’t all that bad now that she has the benefit of hindsight.

“Our parents owned a grocery store right across the street from the school so they couldn’t have gotten away with too much because the nuns would just walk over to the store and tell on them,” she recalled.

She also recalled a couple of the priests at the school.

“I remember Father Wenz, who taught religion at St. Mike’s, would teach and smoke out one of the windows during the whole class period,” she said. “And Father Elmer-Mahoney! He was a young, good-looking priest who would skate on the pond outside of school and all the girls had a crush on him and would just stare out the window and not pay attention in class.”

Into the working world

After graduation from St. Mike’s with about 23 other classmates (she says five are still alive), Thomas got married that July and became pregnant a month later with the first of her four children, Gary.

For the next eight years or so before she got pregnant with her second child, Thomas worked in town at General Motors’ Pontiac Motor Division as a secretary. But, she said, once her pregnancy started showing, she was let go. 

“Those were different times,” she said.

So she decided to stay home and raise her kids. Later, she worked at her dad’s catering company, which evolved from the family grocery store. “We had a pretty large and successful catering business. We specialized in high-end catering.”

Thomas divorced at 50 and her daughters, Cheryl, Michelle and Denise, eventually moved to California after graduating from high school, which for them was Our lady of the Lakes Catholic School in Waterford. 

So as a divorcee and only 50 years old, Thomas knew she needed to get back into the workforce.

“I went to work at GMC Truck and Bus in the warehouse,” she said. “I worked nights — 10 hours a day, 6 day a week — and went to Oakland Community College to get a degree during the day.” 

Six years later she got a double associates degree and became a secretary in the training office at the GMC plant. She also worked with GM to get her car paid off and in 1981 moved to a condo, where she still lives today.

Catholic education ‘a must’

So after nearly 90 years that so far has included an “extreme” life well-lived, what else could Thomas possibly fit into a daily routine that might include skydiving or parasailing? Believe it or not, Thomas finds time to devote an extraordinary amount of time to volunteer work, which in one case holds special meaning for her.

“I am 28 years now a recovering alcoholic,” she said. “And I continue to sponsor other alcoholics and help out at about three AA meetings per week.”

Thomas also visits patients at a nursing home, does hospice volunteering (nine years and counting), crochets rainbow blankets for cancer kids (made about 300 or so), she’s a greeter at church and conducts once-a-week bible study at her parish.

She was asked by the alumni association to assess the value of a Catholic education in general and she was unequivocal.

“Catholic education is a must,” she said. “It made me who I am. And I also think it’s great that Notre Dame has picked up the torch in this area. When they closed all those schools, I am so thankful there is a place now for kids to come for a high-quality Catholic education.” 


Comments or questions? mkelly@ndpma.org.

Follow Notre Dame on Twitter at @NDPMA.

About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org.

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