Elbert Thomas

Elbert Thomas was a college professor and United States senator. He worked to improve conditions for workers and public education and was an advocate for Jewish refugees escaping Europe during World War II. His leadership skills, kindness, and love of learning were talents that he brought to the table to help the people of Utah and the world.

Elbert Thomas, Utah Dramatic Club

More of the Story

Elbert Thomas was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on June 17, 1883. He was the fifth of twelve children. Thomas’s parents loved plays, and he spent his childhood performing. His father’s political participation also influenced him. He was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate in 1932. He worked hard for Utah and the United States while serving in the federal government. Thomas married Edna Harker, and together they had three children.  

Gaining New Perspectives

Thomas was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He and his wife, Edna, served a religious mission in Japan from 1907 to 1912. They loved the Japanese people, and both learned to speak the language. Thomas’s experience in Japan influenced his life. When we returned from his mission, he became a professor of Political Science at the University of Utah. He taught language and a class about Japanese culture. His time in Japan helped him see people from different perspectives than his own. 

Thomas the Politician 

Thomas ran against Republican Senator Reed Smoot in 1932 and won. Thomas had a tough challenge because he became senator during the Great Depression. He sponsored President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The New Deal was a series of programs that Roosevelt believed would bring America out of the Depression. Many of the programs, including the Civilian Conservation Corp, gave people jobs.  

The Thomas Family

He also helped create the Department of Education and Social Services, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies dedicated to helping the American people. He supported the passage of laws that protected workers. He also helped get the United States to join the United Nations after World War II. 

Thomas and World War II

Senator Thomas traveled to Germany in 1934 and saw firsthand how the Nazi party treated members of the Jewish faith. He then started working to help Jewish people immigrate to the United States. Thomas did not like that President Roosevelt prevented some members of the Jewish faith from immigrating to the United States. He sponsored a resolution that would help Jews escape the Holocaust. His efforts persuaded Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board.   

Thomas’s Legacy

Many things that we take for granted today—including the United Nations and refugee resettlement programs, or even education benefits guaranteed to armed forces veterans—exist because of Thomas’s life work.

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