Gary Thomas is a man who can't say no. At least, not very often.
For more than three decades, he's been saying yes to community organizations, serving as president of this, chairman of that and director of the other.
"If you're involved at all in civic engagements, if you're involved at all in any nonprofits or care at all about small local businesses in the San Fernando Valley, you can't help but run across Gary Thomas," said City Councilman Mitchell Englander.
"It's rare to come across somebody so passionate, so caring, so involved in so many different causes and yet so quiet," Englander added. "He shies away from recognition. He does it because it's the right thing to do and he doesn't want credit for anything."
He gets credit anyway. Lots of it. In his file of awards is a commendation from the Los Angeles City Attorney, a resolution from the California State Assembly and the president's award from the , which he served as president and vice president.
Last month, , perhaps the most prestigious of all awards for volunteerism. It was the first time the award had gone to the son of a previous recipient. Fred Thomas won the Fernando in 1988.
"Even during his acceptance speech, he thanked all of the other people in the room," Englander said. "He thanked the Boys and Girls Club. He thanked the other finalists. That's Gary Thomas. He always puts everybody else first."
Thomas' application for the Fernando required a couple dozen pages to list all the organizations he led, created and boosted. First on the list, though, was the Boys & Girls Club of the West Valley. In the five years he has been its chairman, the organization purchased its own building, established four new satellite locations and expanded its enrollment from a few hundred to 3,400 kids.
"It's not just a babysitting service or a recreational activity," Thomas emphasized. "It's life skills. It's role models. You've got computer labs that are doing robotics and digital arts. They're making films. It's amazing. Plus, most kids are exercising at least 30 minutes a day."
That would be a proud achievement under any circumstances but, in the case of the Boys & Girls Club, 86 percent of the kids' families are at or below the poverty level.
A recent impact study showed that kids who joined the clubs got better grades and missed fewer days of school. At Canoga Park High School, where two programs were started, graduation rates jumped from 55 to 93 percent in four years, Thomas said.
"It's not just changing that kid, it's a generation-changing activity," he said. "We're ending that cycle of poverty for them, for their kids, for their kids' kids."
That's typical Thomas, said Deborah Sakacs, who has known him for more than 30 years and recruited him for the Chatsworth Chamber of Commerce.
"When he joins an organization, he sees where it can be improved to make it function better," Sakacs said. "When he becomes involved, it's because he's had a vision."
In addition to the Boys & Girls Club, Thomas also currently chairs the San Fernando Valley Symphony Orchestra and the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Foundation. He was a co-founder of the the Valley Economic Alliance to help business owners rebuild in the Valley after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
The Fernando Award recognized him for helping to raise $5 million for about 30 nonprofit organizations.
For Thomas, 52, the pivotal moment of his life may have been in 1972 when Harold Cotton, his eighth-grade world history teacher at Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks, encouraged him to volunteer for a political campaign.
"I chose to go volunteer for Richard Nixon," Thomas recalled. "I rode my bike every day down to the headquarters. I made phone calls. I actually got to meet the president, which was very exciting. I started getting Christmas cards from the White House."
That Nixon would resign in disgrace only a couple of years later over the Watergate scandal meant little to Thomas at the time. "What does an eighth-grader know about that?" he asked. "I got to sit with Fred MacMurray and Rich Little at a dinner. That's what I remember."
Not only did the experience set him off on a lifetime of volunteerism but it also influenced his career. Today he is senior vice president and creative director of Aaron, Thomas & Associates, 21344 Superior St., Chatsworth, one of the nation's largest printing and direct mail firms in the political arena. The firm is owned by Thomas and his brother, Fred Jr.
The company at 9260 Owensmouth Ave. made headlines last year when on Nov. 4.
"If it had happened a week earlier it could have been just devastating, with all those people in there," Thomas said. "Nobody got hurt, fortunately, but we lost the whole business."
Englander was with Thomas when it happened. "The first thing most people would think about is their records, their equipment and making sure everyone was safe," the councilman said. "But the very next day, instead of taking inventory, he got on the phone with every other printer in the San Fernando Valley to make sure the pressmen and the graphic artists all had had a place to go to work."
A former Eagle Scout, Thomas said scouting and membership in the Congregational Church in Sherman Oaks were important parts of his life.
"I came from a family that was really involved in the community," he said. "My whole lifestyle revolved around being involved in the community, doing things for the community. It was a very strong foundation."