Leading with Legal Ease

July 3, 2008

Operating a rock quarry may not have been the ideal preparation for the job of legal counsel to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. But Ralph Thomas says his various life experiences, particularly those working as a small town lawyer, have come in handy preparing him for the job he’s held for the last 15 years.

Ralph’s career path has taken some unexpected turns, but concluding his career path in a job with a ministry has been unexpectedly fulfilling.

Ralph graduated in 1954 from Penn State University with a degree in chemical engineering. Serving out his military commitment with the U.S. Army in Korea, he was in charge of a platoon that maintained all of the roads between Seoul and the Demilitarized Zone. To keep the roads properly surfaced, they ran a rock quarry.

As an Army officer he also had the opportunity to participate as a judge in military courts martial. “I spent quite a bit of time hearing serious cases,” he said “I got interested in it.”

Those legal experiences came to mind about ten years later when he reached what appeared to him and his wife Betty as a dead end for his chemical engineering career in the oil business. They were living in New Orleans at the time, and he decided to start attending Loyola University’s night school law classes.

After two years of night school, Ralph decided he was doing well enough to use his GI Bill benefits and become a fulltime student. He applied to a number of schools and ended up at the University of Washington.

One of the best things about a legal career is that it can be done just about anywhere. So after graduation Ralph and Betty decided to settle their family in a small town. He joined another lawyer in a practice in Montesano, Washington, population 2500.

After ten years of general practice law, he was appointed court commissioner, which put him back on the judge’s bench hearing juvenile cases, domestic violence cases, and other cases that didn’t involve jury trials. Eventually he applied for appointment to a judicial vacancy but the governor chose someone from his own political party instead. Then he ran for an open judge’s seat but lost that election.

“So I learned a little bit about politics there,” Ralph recalled. “When that happened I decided, ‘OK God, now you’ve got my attention, what do you want me to do?’ I just had the feeling I should be doing something else.”

Having been an elder and delegate in his local Presbyterian Church, he considered ministry-related positions, and took a class to become a church business administrator. But the few interviews that he had were frustrating. “They all decided I was over qualified,” he said. “I never got an offer.”

After five long years of waiting, Ralph had almost resigned himself to practicing law for the rest of his life. And then, through a contact made by a family friend, he got a letter in the mail from InterVarsity’s missions director Dan Harrison. The letter said, “I think we could use you in the Soviet Union.”

Ralph and Betty had never heard of InterVarsity. And although they had traveled abroad frequently, the Soviet Union was not high on their list of places to visit. But they responded anyway.

Because of thawing relations between the superpowers, InterVarsity was working with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students to place American Christians into educational positions in the Soviet Union. The original proposal for Ralph was to teach law in Kiev. That didn’t work out. So instead, Ralph and Betty ended up in the Ukrainian ship-building city of Nikolayev. In 1991 they, and the two other students who were part of their team, were the only Americans in Nikolayev.

“Betty and I started a Bible study for the faculty,” he recalled. Faculty members and even some students attended. The team established a Christian student organization and got it recognized by school officials. But as the end of their second year in Nikolayev approached, the inflation rate was at 100 percent per month. “The Institute just couldn’t afford me at that point,” he said. “So we came back.”

Not sure what to do next, Ralph offered his assistance to InterVarsity’s corporation counsel, Yvonne Vinkemulder, at the National Service Center in Madison, Wisconsin. They worked together for several years, and when Yvonne retired Ralph became InterVarsity’s corporation counsel.

Over the last 15 years Ralph has helped InterVarsity’s staff navigate an increasingly complex legal system. On two different occasions he’s also had to help prepare the legal casework as InterVarsity filed federal lawsuits against Rutgers University and the University of Wisconsin-Superior, in order to maintain access for student chapters on public college campuses.

Those cases were resolved in InterVarsity’s favor. “We’ve learned that we have certain rights,” he emphasized. Unfortunately, similar pressures against Christian groups exist on other campuses and InterVarsity may have to address them in the years ahead.

But now at the age of 75, Ralph is ready to step down and let someone else take the lead on legal issues. He and Betty have moved back to Washington state, to be closer to their grandkids.

The legal profession has many jobs, some which are quite lucrative. Ralph is thankful that he’s been able to use his legal skills to help a ministry like InterVarsity for so many years. His experiences as a private practice attorney in a small town were perfect preparation. “That variety is what made it easy for me to step into this job,” he said.