Paul Thomas of Natick (formally of Stow), engineer and retired technical director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center; a man best known as “Mr. Magnet” to more than 500,000 children across New England, the United States, Canada and Europe through his Mr. Magnet Science Show, passed away peacefully on May 4, 2020 after a 5-year battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 77.
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As the technical director (retired) at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), Thomas took on the persona of “Mr. Magnet” in 1991, traveling to local schools with a large truckload of experiments. He would actively engage students using electromagnets to lift hundreds of colored paper clips, a Van de Graaff generator to have hair standing straight up and send Rice Krispies® flying, created electrical pathways to light bulbs and small buildings and launched Garfield the Cat into space with a magnetic pulse.
Through his program, students learned the importance of magnetism and the different ways to produce electricity, the physics of particles and motion and particle acceleration all while laughing and having hands-on fun. Although he stopped traveling about 10 years ago, Thomas continued to educate and entertain students at in-house events and created portable demonstrations for others to use at science expos and local schools. His “Mr Magnet” program received local and national acclaim as a model program for bringing the excitement of science to the minds and the hearts of young people. In addition to being Mr Magnet, Thomas was a mentor and supervisor to MIT grad students pursuing PhD in physics, mathematics and engineering.
Thomas had the honor of educating and entertaining youngsters at the White House and Congress, and in 2010 was recognized by the U.S. Department of Energy for his efforts teaching students about magnetism, and was awarded a Governor’s Citation “in recognition of nearly 20 years of dedicated service to the ‘Mr. Magnet’ program” by Gov. Deval Patrick and Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray.
Thomas was born in Newton and attended Wellesley High School through his junior year and graduated from Natick High School in 1960. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Northeastern University. In 1957, at the tender age of 15, Thomas met his one and only true love, Louise Geary, at a town dance. They were married in 1966. In 2016 they celebrated 50 years of marriage.
Thomas was a loving family man. He coached both of his boys in multiple sports, taught religious education and was actively involved in their academic pursuits. He was an avid fisherman and loved to spend his weekends out on a boat with his sons or great-nieces at local fishing spots or deep-sea fishing in Gloucester. He loved to take his great-nieces out for lunch and then spend the afternoon teaching them to fish or take them to a movie or painting plaster pieces at Plaster Funtime.
A certified master builder, Thomas rebuilt his Natick family home from the ground up and loved to tinker in the garage fixing electronics and building rolling experiment stations for his shows. He was an avid reader and writer and was writing a book about the summers he spent in Black Point, Nova Scotia as a teen and working on commercial fishing boats, and another book about a young girl (his great-niece Katie) in Ireland during World War II. He was a self-taught pianist and loved astronomy.
Thomas is predeceased by his loving wife of 51 years, Louise (2018). He is survived by his sons Peter Thomas of Fall River and Oakley Thomas and family of Nahant. Loving uncle to Debbie Hayes and her fiancé, Julio Fontecchio of Millis and Diane Byrne and her husband Walter of Auburn as well as his great-nieces Katie Hausken and her husband Krist of Dover NH, Holly Hayes of Millis, and Mary Byrne and Laura Byrne of Auburn, MA. He is predeceased by his brother Theodore and sister Roberta.
Services will be private, and interment will be in Calvary Cemetery in Waltham. The family wishes to thank doctors and staff of Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center in Natick for their care and compassion over the past 5 years.
If you wish, donations may be made to the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at the Boston Medical Center, Shapiro Center, 725 Albany Street, 7th Floor, Suite 7B, Boston, MA 02118.