On March 10, 1960, a blizzard blew into Auburn, dropping heavy snow, blowing gusty winds and stopping all travel. During that storm, a bouncing baby boy made his way into the arms of his parents, Neal and Annie Thomas. Little Dale Robert joined three older brothers and was the youngest of the “brothers” of the family. Six years later, the brothers would be blessed with the addition of a sister, Leslie.
Dale grew up in Auburn and was the typical boy of the 1960’s and 1970’s. He spent his time playing with and pestering his older brothers, riding bikes, hiking to Molly’s Hole, exploring the woods behind the middle school and hanging out with all the neighboring kids. Dale, along with his brothers and the Cole boys, were founding members of the A-OK club and he was proud to be a Sheridan Steeler. Dale loved Cub Scouts. He attended Auburn Middle School and was involved in all the activities that middle school boys participated in at the time. His favorite was football. Football was to remain a love of his life until the end. He started keeping defensive statistics for the Bulldog football team in the fall of 1978 and continued until his passing. His proudest moment was being with the team when the Bulldogs won a State Championship at Memorial Stadium in 2006. He was the PA announcer for the Peru State Bobcat football team. He loved his Bobcats just as much as he did his beloved Bulldogs. He lived through the glory years of Husker football and longed for their return.
Dale was a batboy for the American Legion Baseball team when they won State Championships in 1970, 1972 and 1973. He played Legion Baseball in high school. He would later go on to announce Legion Baseball games and, like football, it would remain a passion all his life. He was proud that Ryan was involved in Legion Baseball as a batboy, player, coach and umpire, even though he thought Ryan needed an eye exam every baseball season!
In high school, Dale was active in football and baseball. He proudly wore #63 for the Bulldogs and was a co-captain of the football team his senior year. Dale loved to sing and the high school choir and swing choir, Riverside Junction, were important to him. He would remain a singer all of his life. He was involved in many plays and musicals throughout high school. He was involved in the speech team as well. He and Lori Kimball placed second at the state speech tourney for their duet acting, “I’m Herbert.” FCA was a big part of Dale’s life and he was an active member, attending several Weekend of Champions. Dale never did anything half-way in school. Everything was all or nothing and he lived by that code all his life. Dale proudly graduated with the Class of 1978.
At a middle school dance his 8th grade year, no one was dancing. Mr. Sheely, the middle school principal, made all the girls throw their shoes into a pile and boys grab one. He happened to grab the shoe of a petite blonde 6th grader, Suzzy Fischer. She reluctantly danced with him, thought he was weird and a really bad dancer, and tried to avoid him all night. He later reconnected with her on a cold, rainy Halloween night when she and her friend Jody were babysitting next door to his friend Jeff Gerdes’ house. She still thought he was weird, but somehow he changed her mind and that night led to 41 years of marriage, two kids and four grandkids. Suzzy finally decided that he wasn’t weird, just one of a kind. Sadly, he remained a really bad dancer. He and Suzzy were married on June 21, 1980.
After graduation from AHS, Dale attended Peru State College for two years, thought that his mom couldn’t run the family business without him, threw his textbooks in the Nemaha River on the way home from Peru and joined his mother and brother in the family business, Thomas Distributing. He remained a part of Thomas Distributing until it closed in 1994. He and Suzzy then purchased North Cleaners and operated it as a full-service dry cleaning plant until 2019 when his health no longer allowed him to spend all day in the extreme heat. He continued to operate the commercial laundry and rentals portion of the business and Suzzy returned to teaching. He worked his last day and delivered his last mat on November 30, 2021.
In October of 1978, Dale followed his grandpa and dad into service with the Auburn Fire Department and Rescue Squad. It became his passion in life. Dale wasn’t just a name on a roster. He lived for the AVFD and rescue squad. He became an EMT in the early 1980’s and went on thousands of rescue calls over the years. He served as either assistant chief or chief for over 20 years. He was always happy to teach younger firefighters about the art and science of fire fighting. He was one of six AVFD members to go to Ground Zero after 9/11. Dale went on his final fire call and fought a field fire just three weeks before his untimely passing. He loved being a fire chief, but he was absolutely ecstatic to be on the end of a hose or running the pump on a fire truck. Engine 343 was his baby.
After their marriage, Dale and Suzzy became parents to two children by their third anniversary. Katy was born in August of 1981 and Ryan soon followed in January of 1983. Dale was a great dad to Katy and Ryan and even better Papa Dale to his three grandgirls, Carolyn, Melody and Kristen, and his grandson Dominic. He beamed every time one of them came up to bat in softball, made a great defensive play, ran down the court in basketball, made a shot, kicked a soccer goal, won a state cheer championship or got their name on the honor roll. In Papa’s scorebook they never reached base on an error--always a hit! He loved them all with a passion and was so very proud of all of them. He took Dominic to kindergarten every day and they enjoyed their little morning routine. He always put his family first. In addition to loving his immediate family, his mom and siblings were very dear to him and he loved spending time with them. He looked forward to attending the spring and fall “Men’s Retreats” at Indian Cave with his brothers, nephews, son, son-in-law and close friends. Many stories were shared from those retreats. Dale also made sure he had a full bucket of dog treats in his van for every dog he met in Auburn.
In 2018, Dale experienced a heart attack while taking down flags from the Avenue of Flags on a hot and humid 4th of July. He recovered well from that, but of late had been experiencing symptoms of congestive heart failure and other related health issues. He passed away unexpectedly on the morning of December 1, 2021.
Dale leaves behind his wife of 41 years, Suzzy and his children Katy (John) Billings and Ryan Thomas, all of Auburn. The apples of his eyes were his grandgirls, Carolyn, Melody and Kristen Billings and his grandson, Dominic Thomas. He is survived by his mother, Annie Thomas of Auburn and mother-in-law Alma Dettmer of Auburn; brothers Dennis (Dianne) of Kenosha, WI, Doug (Diana) of Omaha and Dave (Susan) of Auburn and sister Leslie (Jeff) Bratrsovsky of Auburn. He is also survived by Suzzy’s siblings, Jay (Suki) Fischer of Auburn, Karen (Bill) Wolf of Lincoln and Kristin Harms of Union. Also surviving are his many nieces, nephews and their children as well as cousins, other relatives, friends and his AVFD brothers and sisters in service. He was preceded in death by his father, Neal; grandparents Harold and Wilma Thomas and Lester and Mildred Ryan, as well as Suzzy’s two dads, Don Fischer and Earl Dettmer.
A funeral service was held Monday, December 6, 2021 at the Auburn Christian Church, officiated by Pastor Nate Powell and Father Justin Fulton. Janell Johnson played accompaniment for a congregational hymn.
Serving as casket bearers were Larry Dorsch, Tom Clark, Jim Jarvis, Harold Hitch, John Wheeler, Jay VonBergen, and Mike Taylor. The Auburn Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad, and Joe Ingersoll served as honorary bearers. Burial followed in Sheridan West Cemetery near Auburn.
Memorials are suggested to the Auburn Rescue Squad Jaws of Life Fund, Auburn Public Schools Foundation, or Auburn American Legion Baseball.