Longtime resident leads community garden with wisdom and love
Phyllis Thomas is in charge of the 81-year-old Oxford Community Garden located next to the Oxford Elementary School in Cleveland Heights. It’s obvious why her predecessor chose her for the job. She is a straightforward woman who elicits respect through her warm and loving, no-nonsense approach to life and problems.
As the leader of the disparate group of gardeners, Thomas is tasked with enforcing the garden rules, recruiting gardeners, allocating plots and maintaining peace and communication among the gardeners.
“Oh, my goodness, if you had been here yesterday [when Tom Gibson and Elsa Johnson conducted a permaculture class] you would have seen all the different cultures and ages of people. Refugees from Nepal, a Vietnamese woman, blacks, a Russian woman, white people, about 30 people in total. I was so proud to see everyone together. We try to work together, sometimes we have problems communicating, but I love this garden,” she said.
When Thomas took over, she recalled, “I had a different vision from the person before me. I wanted to try different ways of gardening. I want the garden to be a place of peace and a place of inspiration. I come down here when I am stressed, and simply sit in the garden. I would love to see a permaculture garden with benches under the trees where people in the neighborhood could come for peace and relaxation.”
Thomas has had a double plot in the garden for the past 16 years. She became the leader three years ago and, together with George Fleming, her deputy, she nurtures a community in this green and peaceful corner of Cleveland Heights.
Phyllis Thomas was born in Quitman, Ga. in 1947. She was raised in the Southern way, respecting her elders and calling everyone, even those only a little older than her, Ma’am or Sir. She misses the Southern tradition of looking everyone you pass in the eye and greeting each one.
Her husband, Willie, moved to Cleveland in 1968, when he got a job in the General Motors plant as a skilled tradesman. Phyllis and their oldest son moved here in 1970 to join him. They lived in Collinwood initially, then in 1973, they bought a house on Monticello Boulevard, where they have lived for the past 42 years. Thomas, herself, also worked at GM as a technician for many years. Their three children—Gregory, Sherri and Willie—all graduated from Heights High and live and work in the Cleveland area.
“I am so grateful that all my children can take care of themselves. We raised them up so that [each] would be an asset to society. Sometimes, you can take care of yourself, but not be an asset to society,” said Thomas, who also has six grandsons and two granddaughters.
When Thomas was a child, her mother told her that there is something important in everyone, and that she should try to love and treat everyone as if they are important. “When I have trouble with gardeners, I try to love them to death," Thomas said, "and I find that things turn out right.”
Jan Kious, resident of Cleveland Heights since 1974, raised four children here with her husband. She is interested in people in the Heights community who fit the description of living "outside of the box."