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Thursday, April 29, 2004 10:20 pm

Small town, big dreams

Bill Thomas helps run an international company out of tiny Atlanta, about 45 miles northeast of Springfield. There, he says, “we have a shared common path, an authentic sense of community.”

Bill Thomas may make his living on the cutting edge of computer technology, but he treasures small-town life. Most of the staff of his Atlanta, Ill.-based company, Teleologic Learning, live in other states. Thomas communicates with them by e-mail and phone. To see clients, he's traveled to Tokyo; Washington, D.C.; and Monterey, Calif. Yet he's proud to say he's never used an ATM.

"I refuse to," he says. "I would rather have to walk to the bank and deal with those individuals. I need to deal with those individuals."

Thomas grew up in the Fulton County town of Cuba, population 1,400. His relatives include the people who opened Dickson Mounds. At Cuba High School, he took four years of Latin from the same woman who'd taught his grandmother. At Eureka College, he majored in history, an early passion. Even in grad school at the University of Chicago he stayed true to his roots.

"When they asked me where I wanted to student-teach, I said, 'I want a small school because that's where I'm going to end up,' " he says. "I got St. Thomas Aquinas on the South Side -- 500 students, all girls, all black. It was wonderful."

For six years, Thomas taught history, theater, and political science in Stockton, population 2,000, about halfway between Galena and Freeport. There he met his wife, Christine. They now have three teenage children. Moving up to administration, he became principal of grade schools in Hopedale, population 900; and, later, Atlanta, population 1,600. Both are part of the massive Olympia School District, which covers portions of Tazewell, Logan, and McLean counties.

"When I was principal, I was told we did a quarter of a million bus miles a year," Thomas says. That figure has certainly grown as the district's number of grade schools has shrunk from eight and will shrink even further to three next year. But still Thomas eagerly gets on his small-town soapbox. He even brags that his daughter will be taking Latin next year, albeit online.

"Everything our society does to put up barriers that isolate us from other individuals is a step in the wrong direction," he says.

"But in Atlanta, we have a shared common path, an authentic sense of community. That, for me, is the difference. We have multiple roles that we play with each other. I was principal here, but I was also a member of the church. Everybody saw me at the grocery store and the post office. Just being able to have those different levels of interaction makes my life much richer here."

Online and international

Even when his career took a sharp new turn 12 years ago, Thomas insisted on staying in Atlanta.

The Laurasian Institution, a not-for-profit group, had just started developing cross-cultural exchange programs between Japan and the United States. One of its founders was Philip Palin, a childhood friend of Thomas' and fellow Eureka alumnus.

"I got a call from Phil one day," Thomas says. "'Would you like to help us with a new not-for-profit educational foundation?' I'd been a principal for six years. I thought I might like to try something different. I said, 'Sure -- as long as I can stay in Atlanta.'" So Thomas set up shop in a one-man office across the street from the post office.

The exchange programs put the institution in contact with Japanese-language teachers in America, and Laurasian agreed to develop training courses.

"For Japanese expertise, we consulted with the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. Because our teachers were so scattered and there were so few of them, we decided very early on to develop courses that could be delivered online," Thomas says. "We did a pretty good job of that, and this was really early in the Internet days -- eight years ago. We got known. All of a sudden the government and the military were asking us to design programs for them. We had to say no because a not-for-profit organization can do only what's directly related to its business.

"Six years ago the Laurasian board said, 'This is silly. Let's form a for-profit spin-off company that can capture this kind of work.'" That spin-off, Teleologic Learning Company, is now nearly four times bigger than its parent. Thomas, one of the company's founders, serves as deputy manager.

Dewey was right

In philosophical and religious circles, "teleological" refers to the belief that an intelligent being with a grand design created the universe. But for Thomas, the word has a practical meaning, too.

"We focus on the aspect of the term that deals with knowing your purpose and achieving it," he said. "John Dewey got it basically right 110 years ago. We learn through experience. I'll pick up stuff if you lecture me. I'll sit there and think about what you're saying. But for me that's never been enough. People learn best when they are solving problems that are authentic and meaningful to them. That's how I was as a classroom teacher -- and that's how we structure and design our programs at Teleologic, too."

Teleologic has designed online training programs for AT&T, Bristol-Myers Squibb, the U.S. Air Force, the Naval Postgraduate School, and Freightliner Corp. Its biggest current client by far, however, is the Department of Homeland Security. Thomas and staff are developing a certification program for state-level domestic-preparedness chiefs. In conjunction with the Naval Postgraduate School, located in Monterey, they are also developing a master's-degree program in homeland security.

"As educators as well as businessmen, we've always wanted diversification," Thomas says. "You don't want too many eggs in one basket. Well, we've got a couple of pretty big eggs in the homeland-security basket. A new administration could change policies like that." He snaps his fingers for emphasis but doesn't seem worried: He doesn't have time for such thought.

Rebuilding old Atlanta

People who drive past Atlanta on the interstate may not notice much change, except for a water tower painted like a giant smiley face. But people who drive Old 66 through the heart of town will note a number of changes, cosmetic as well as historical. As is his wont, Thomas has been elbow-deep in all of them.

"Eleven years ago, a group from Atlanta attended a workshop at the [Illinois] Institute for Rural Affairs in Macomb," he says. "It was about strategic planning: where you want to go, what assets you have, how you're going to get there. We came home and formed the 'A-Team.' I was its first chairman. In fact, I'm still the chairman."

The A-Team's first project was restoration of the J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator, a wooden relic from the early 20th century. The structure is functional again and also on the National Register of Historic Places. Thomas is now trying to figure out how to staff it five days a week.

"The elevator was the spark that let several of us see what else could be done," Thomas says. "Until you have that first success, it's hard to tell."

Now it's hard to see where things might end. For his business, Thomas restored a storefront across the street from the town's Carnegie library. His office is on the second floor, where the Masons used to meet. Then came the Letterheads and Wall Dogs.

The Letterheads are a loose-knit national fraternity of professional billboard and sign painters. The Wall Dogs are a subgroup dedicated to the vanishing art of brick wall signs. Each year the fraternity gets together for a long weekend to do a community sign project. Two years ago they sent a letter to the Route 66 Association of Illinois volunteering to do one along 66. That letter wound up with Atlanta's Betty McLellan, one of the association's charter members. She took it to Thomas, whom she knew from church. It was good timing.

"I'd been looking through all the town's old newspapers," Thomas says. "I kept seeing all these wonderful painted signs on the sides of buildings in Atlanta, especially along 66, and I thought, 'Wouldn't repainting them be a nice way to dress up this stretch of the road?' Three or four years ago, we repainted one ourselves. Then we found out about the Letterhead people."

The A-Team sent an invitation. Thomas continued his newspaper research. He focused on signs from 1926 through the 1940s. Then on a weekend in the summer of 2002, the painters descended on Atlanta.

"They came from all over the country -- Oregon, Connecticut, Alabama -- and painted their rears off for three days," Thomas said. "And we didn't pay them a thing -- we fed them and we housed them. Ladies brought them lemonade and cookies while they were working. Ace Hardware even donated most of the paint.

"They felt so well received that they came back in 2003, too. The first year, there were 30 of them. The second year there were a hundred." Atlanta now has five of their signs decorating its main street.

Bunyon and Palm's

For his contributions, Thomas recently received a governor's tourism award. But many of his ideas have yet to be embraced. A few doors north, on the other side of the street, the Bunyon Giant shares a grassy plot with the town's war memorial. The 18-foot fiberglass statue used to stand in front of the Bunyon Drive-In in Cicero. He looks a lot like the Lauterbach Tire giant on Wabash Avenue in Springfield, but he holds a giant hot dog instead of a tire or an American flag. When the Cicero restaurant closed last year, the Route 66 Association called Thomas about offering the statue a new home.

"I went to the mayor," Thomas says. "We both recognized it was going to be a sales job. We haven't sold everybody, but I hope he grows on folks. If there is any challenge to living in a small community, it's that sort of us-and-them mentality. The Bunyon statue wasn't part of us in the first place, and the folks are having to get used to him. But I supported the idea of bringing him here because I can see the bridge to what he's going to do for Atlanta. This town isn't just a town -- it's part of Route 66, and I see the benefit of that."

Thomas' newest dream -- his newest problem for the community to solve -- has enjoyed readier support. He wants to restore the Palm's Grill building next door to his office.

"I had no idea what fondness the community had for Palm's," Thomas said. "But it was evidently the place from 1938 to 1969. When the former owner passed away, he donated it to the library. They didn't know quite what they were going to do with it. For me, the wheels just started turning. I went to the library board. The Atlanta Museum is in their basement. If they moved it to the 'new' building, they would have more space for computers and books in the library -- then, on the first floor of the new building, they could re-create the interior of Palm's Grill. It would be an asset for the library, the town, and the state."

It was the same problem-solving technique that Thomas has used for 25 years on students and clients -- and the board bought it.

"Already we've applied for a state grant to stabilize the building and rebuild the façade," Thomas says. "I'll also apply for a couple of other grants. I'm pushing them in the direction of even opening the grill as a restaurant again, at least during the summer months.

"Why not?"

The next challenge

Thomas, who's 49, wants to retire before he's 60.

"I'm doing everything I possibly can to make sure I'm ready," he says. "I might stick with one program at Teleologic, but I want the majority of my time so I can play with Route 66 and other projects. I'm not happy unless I'm doing something. I just want more choice in what I'm doing."

That leaves the road wide open. It could lead Thomas almost anywhere -- except to an ATM.

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