MORGANTOWN - In a letter he received on the day of his high school graduation, Wellsburg native A.J. Thomas was reminded of his likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams as an 11-year-old.
Best friend: Sammy. Favorite subject: Science. Dream job: Lawyer.
"I also wrote that I wanted to play college football, but that didn't happen," said Thomas, a third-year law student who will be one of about 4,300 other West Virginia University students graduating during Commencement weekend, May 9-11. He plans to return to the area after graduation to practice law.
His sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Heaton of Wellsburg Middle School, had the class write a note to their future selves detailing their hobbies, thoughts and career goals. She then mailed out each letter six years later on their high school graduation.
As a then 18-year-old about to embark on a career in law, Thomas looked back at his young handwriting that scrawled "lawyer" under the future career goals portion of the wrinkled letter, knowing right then that this was what he was supposed to be doing. Now 25, "It's just something I've always wanted to do," he said. "For as long as a I can remember - before sixth grade, before middle school, all the way back to when I was young and people would ask 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' It was always law."
And he familiarized himself with all aspects of law during his time at WVU: Thomas has experience with criminal defense, public interest, family court, tax law and more.
Docket of experience
Thomas worked with West Virginia Legal Aid in Wheeling, where he researched, drafted motions, participated in family court weekly and helped those who were seeking legal help with family law-related issues.
He was selected as a Sprouse Fellow, which is given to two second-year WVU law students interested in criminal defense by Public Interest Advocates. Students selected for the fellowship can be placed in the federal public defender's office and the other in a state office. Thomas chose to pursue the state office the Public Defender Corp. for the First Judicial Court in Wheeling, because he felt it would be more challenging.
Under Rule 10 of the West Virginia Supreme Court, Thomas was able to practice in court as a student attorney where he won motions to suppress evidence and took part in a jury trial in magistrate court.
He also participated in the WVU Clinical Law Program, which allows third-year law students to practice law and serve those who are unable to afford legal services, for about 300 hours this year.
"A.J. has committed himself to helping those in need," Jennifer Powell, director for the Center for Public Service at the WVU College of Law, said. "A.J. is smart, responsible, caring and dedicated - he cares about the clients he serves. He is someone that you can count on. When A.J. was involved in a project, I didn't worry; he makes sure that things get done - and done right."
The one award that stands out above all other accomplishments, though, is the CALI award in Elder Law that Thomas received in the fall of 2012. The CALI award is given to the student who receives the highest grade in that class.
Motion to combine ambition with passion
While in college, Thomas discovered that both his maternal and his paternal grandmothers were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
"My family is kind of old-school," the first-generation college student said. "When everything happened with my grandma, it put a lot of stress on my family - because nothing was done beforehand."
He learned first-hand the issues that arise within families will-drafting, planning, Medicaid issues, advance directives and "do-not-resuscitate" orders.
"It's difficult for people to plan for these things when they don't know they're offered or think they have time," he said. "It was a really difficult time in my life to see my family struggling with the necessity of putting my grandmother in a nursing home while at the same time having to figure out how to pay for it."
While he always knew law would be his career, it became apparent to Thomas that he wanted to go into elder law, specifically.
"I don't want anyone else to have to go through that," he said. "It's important to make sure these services are available and that the elderly population is aware of them. There isn't always more time things happen. One minute somebody is there, and the next, they're not."
Area bankrupt of youth
Wellsburg has a population that is dying off more quickly than babies are being born. At just fewer than 2,000 people, it's an area slowing to a crawl in terms of growth.
That, coupled with many families receiving income from selling mineral rights to their land and a void of lawyers who practice elder law, is an opportunity to help in Thomas' eyes.
He currently plans to return to his hometown and join a solo practitioner - one of only a handful of lawyers in the area. He hopes to eventually move on to practice on his own in Wellsburg specializing in elder law.
"Towns like Wellsburg need help," he said. "Young people leave, get their education and don't come back. Then there's no next generation to help bring up the town and care for the ones left in the community."
With 38 cousins on his mother's side alone, Thomas is excited to return home to his family and begin helping his town.
"It's up to me and people of this generation to help those in our communities and help revitalize those communities. That's why I'm going back home," he said.