Thomas, Jesse Burgess

Jesse Burgess Thomas, USCS #1012

Exhibitors at the USCS conventions will recognize the name of the Jesse Burgess Thomas Memorial Award, the award presented for the most outstanding exhibit of covers of maritime or naval history. I was the lucky and proud recipient of this award at the 2008 convention in Charlotte. Though I had heard the name for years, it made me wonder who Jesse was.

Jesse was an early member of the USCS, number 1012, joining in September 1935. He was living in Georgetown, Massachusetts and was sponsored by H.S. Groat. Jesse was born Iloilo, Philippines December 7, 1920. He was a magna cum laude at Andover Academy and a graduate of Harvard in history and the English and Greek languages. At Harvard he was on the swimming and track teams. He was also in the stamp club and photography club. He graduated in 1942 intending to become a teacher. Apparently the sea (and war) changed his plans as he attended Kings Point Maritime Academy after Harvard and he served in the merchant marine during World War II. He wrote naval history for the Navy Department and served as a shipping editor for a Tokyo newspaper, living in Japan for some period. He was fluent in several languages, including French, Japanese, Spanish and Latin, no doubt in part to his many travels around the world.

During the Korean war, probably while serving on a merchant ship, he came across a small naval unit at Inchon whose land supply had been cut by the enemy. The men were hungry. No one was responsible for supplying them by sea. However Jesse at risk to his own expense and life, obtained food for them from merchant ships to save them from starvation.

At some point, it appears to be after the Korean war, he served with the American President Lines as a purser on ships. He serviced covers for collectors while serving as purser. The Cachet Makers Catalog lists his years of sponsorship as 1952-1966.

Jesse collected stamps, first day covers, postal cancellations, mementos of Japan including vases, lacquered and inlaid boxes, postcards and clothing and of course naval covers. He also collected shipping books, charts, records and pictures.

Sadly, Jesse passed away at the young age of 53 of a heart attack in Washington, DC on March 27, 1973. He collapsed in a street after returning to his apartment and finding his belongings strewn about the street. People were picking over his prized possessions at the time. His landlord had evicted Jesse after he fell behind in rent payments. The medical examiner put the cause of death as a heart attack; his neighbors said he died of a broken heart. He had been working as a part time cab driver shortly before his death. He was survived by his wife Anne K. Thomas and funeral services were held in Georgetown, Massachusetts.

The Jesse Burgess Thomas Award was first given at the USCS convention held in Berlin, Germany in 1974 with the first recipient being Don McPherson with his “The Asiatic Fleet” exhibit.

By Steve Shay