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Sam Liked Bikes: Forest City Trail Reminds Locals Of A True Friend To Nature And Bikes

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Bill and Nancy McCollough pose with one of Sam Thomas's bikes that he often rode the 20 miles from Forest City to their Casar home. Nancy is one of Sam's three daughters. The other two are Jackie and Genie.

Remembering Sam Thomas needs more than this piece of paper.
His name on the bike trail signs at Ingle's and near James Crowe Park in Forest City prompted a reader to ask, "Who was Sam Thomas?"
The answer to that question brings up other names: Crowder Mountain State Park, South Mountain State Park, regional chapters of the Sierra Club, the effort to stop the Clinchfield Dam.
Sam Thomas was a heartbeat and leader in all those efforts.
One of his three daughters, Nancy McCollough and her husband, Bill, talked about the environmentalist and bike enthusiast on a sunny afternoon last week.
"When I see these bicyclist out racing or climbing a hill, I'm astounded by their physical stamina, the muscle power in their legs and the capacity of their lungs," Bill said and remembered that Sam had been part of a 1500-mile trek through the Rocky Mountains when he was 62 years old, a trip that mostly featured much younger riders.
Nancy called the naming of the bike trail in Forest City, "the greatest honor," of a lifetime committed to the environment and bikes.
The trail is part of a statewide trail that covers hundreds of miles and was conceived by Sam Thomas and others on the N.C. Department of Transportation's Bicycle Commission.
The trail is part of the larger Southern Highlands Bicycle Route.
But to know that Sam Thomas advocated bicycling in general and bicycle safety in particular is just scratching the surface.
His death in 1985 prompted a lot more tributes than the naming of the trail.
Former East Rutherford teacher and friend, J.V. Jones wrote, "Sam touched and inspired many people. His interests spanned many areas, most of which involved working to make the world around him a better place. One of his greatest loves was the beauty of nature and he was happiest with a backpack hiking the Appalachian Trail or sharing his vast knowledge of the out of doors with others."
Jones wrote about his zeal for environmentalism before such a cause was popular. He talked about making others aware of "the beauty and value of a virgin forest as a reminder of the magnificence that once was common before progress took its toll."
Retired North State Gas exec and environmentalist in his own right, Bruce Byers, spoke at Thomas's memorial service in 1985 and told the gathered mourners, "You knew him to be capable, dedicated, and organized about the things he did.
"In doing selfless deeds for his fellow man, and in working for a safer, healthier, and more enjoyable environment, Sam was unsurpassed. While we all want to help make the world better, rarely do we rise above the attitude that 'someone else will do it' when we encounter something that calls for an extra effort. Sam knew that this attitude does not get things done."
Byers also praised his courage in standing up in front of loggers and "a hostile Sen. Jesse Helms" in opposing a road around the north shore of Fontana Lake.
Sam Thomas's love affair with bikes began in 1942 when someone stole the wheels and tires off his car. He started using a bike and recalled, "It was the most beautiful year I remember. I saw every flower that bloomed that spring." In a year when both gasoline and rubber were rationed, he found the bike to be a logical alternative.
Shortly thereafter he served in the U.S. Military during World War II and upon his return home, continued his love affair with the bike.
He was a founding member of a couple of local Sierra Club chapters and often spoke to young people about his love of nature and how to preserve it.
He came to Forest City in 1964 as an executive with Alexander Mills.
Bill McCollough said he loved Forest City so much, in part, because of its proximity to hiking trails and the mountains.
At one point, Sam Thomas claimed the bicycle was among the most efficient machines ever invented. He served on the DOT's Bicycle Commission from 1978 until his death in 1985.
A friend named Ed Easton wrote a letter in praise of Thomas shortly after he died. He said, "It was the dependability that meant so much. The effort to make Crowders Mountain a state park was his first campaign and then the long, hard fight to get the South Mountains recognized. We won both of them."
Easton also asked that the state Sierra Club establish an award in his memory, an award that would recognize someone "who chooses to do something tough to do and then goes out and does it."
Jones closed his tribute to Thomas with " ...as long as rivers such as the New or the Chattooga flow free, or unspoiled forests like Joyce Kilmer or the Smoky Mountain National Park remain undisected by roads, or wild wonderful places like Linville Gorge exist, Sam will be with us."

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