Alumni Spotlight - Thomas James

By Jamie Kornegay GSD Reporter
From the muddy beaches of Grenada Lake to the obsidian cliffs and fuming geysers of Yellowstone National Park, our featured alumni, Thomas James, found a life's work in preserving the past. James, who graduated from Grenada High School in 1997, never imagined he would end up protecting the resources of America's most famous national park.

"I left Grenada thinking I would go into engineering but later found that sitting at a computer all day wasn't for me," James said. He recalled beach-combing for artifacts as a child at Grenada Lake, where his dad worked for the Corps of Engineers. It proved to be an early signifier that he was meant to be out in nature, digging and scraping to find hidden mementos from previous generations.

In college at Mississippi State, James switched from engineering to religion and philosophy, and then began dabbling in anthropology. The interest took hold, and he stayed in Starkville to earn a master's degree in applied anthropology.

After school, James moved to Chicago and took a position at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. The museum's collection focuses on artifacts from the ancient Middle East. He spent six months in Sudan, excavating sites that were to be flooded by a new dam at one of the shallow, rocky portions of the Nile River.

At his first major excavation, James and his team uncovered burial offerings primarily from the Kerma (2000-1500 BC) and Napatan (7th century BC) periods but sifted through civilizations that has existed for the last 100,000 years.

The team worked during 2007 and 2008 at a safe distance from the Darfur conflict, which was then at its height.

"The scariest situation [in Sudan], to me, was when the dokkan (store) next to our house burned one night," James recalls. "We spent all night making sure nothing else burned. There was a lunar eclipse that night. The huge fire, blood red moon, and all of the people crying and screaming was the most surreal moment of my life."

Eventually, James looked for work closer to home and took a job with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), surveying ruins after Hurricane Katrina.

The government brought in the team of archaeologists to account for damage to historical sites during the storm as well as the clean-up effort. The team found considerable damage to the area's historical resources, including buildings and settlement sites that dated back to the first arrival of humans in the area, some 12,000 years ago.

All along, James waited on a particular job to open up in the national parks system. When the position became available, he seized on it.

Today he holds that title - Cultural Resource Specialist for Yellowstone National Park. "In my job, there's something new everyday," James said.

On a broad scale, he works to preserve the dignity of Yellowstone, which at the moment involves road work. "The park is expanding the roads, and a big part of my job is to make sure we're meeting federal safety standards as well as the historical integrity standards established by the park." The road improvements will accomodate an influx of new traffic, James says, but it must still feel like driving through a park rather than rushing down an interstate. For example, instead of putting up standard aluminum guardrails, he makes sure the rails are built of wood to keep up the park's rustic aesthetic.

Living in Wyoming suits the former Mississippian. "I love the weather, which is not too hot, and the wildlife is great," he says. "It's still a bit of a new thing for me to get within twenty feet or so to deer, elk and bison on a regular basis and to see both black and grizzly bears pretty frequent."

James still has family in Grenada. His parents, Reuben and Wanda James, live in town, and his sister, Jessica Boyle, teaches 2nd/3rd grade looping at Grenada Elementary.

His advice for local students, especially those who still aren't sure how they want to spent the rest of their lives, is not to worry so much.

"As long as you put the work in, you can really go places," he says. "There's lots of potential out there. You might not end up exactly where you thought you would, but often that's exactly where you're supposed to be."