By Greg Riley
William “Billy” Paul Thomas, Jr. February 6th 1943 – January 18, 2021
Occasionally you meet someone by accident that becomes very important in your life. In 2011 I was invited on an antique automobile tour to Richards Texas, a place I had never heard of which has since become my home. I was not enthusiastic about attending that day because I did not feel well, but a friend had recently purchased a Duesenberg, the tour would start at his home and I was anxious to see the car.
We left Tomball and slowly caravanned in a northerly direction towards the tiny town of Richards. We finally arrived at the elaborate gates of what I later learned was a 3000-acre ranch. We were taken on a tour of a restoration shop and large warehouse filled with many different classic cars in various states of restoration and disrepair. One car was familiar to me, a 1930 Lincoln Model L previously owned by another acquaintance.
We were introduced to a gentleman by the name of Billy Thomas who was the proprietor of the Thomas ranch and the owner of all the cars. He told us that he had been an enthusiastic collector and restorer of cars for decades but in the recent past his life circumstances had changed and he was now able to indulge himself fully in the acquisition and restoration of all sorts of different cars.
After a time, we were invited to “go up the hill.” As we preceded up the lane, we went through a second set of elaborate iron gates and immediately to our left was a sign that said, “The Vineyard at Grandview.” The scene was like something out of a 19th century painting with a pristine vineyard in the background, sculpture lining the sweeping driveway, and Grandview Manor at the top of the hill.
Nothing could have prepared me for the inside of the house it was like a Texas version of Architectural Digest. Beautiful murals lined the entrance Hall above the large sweeping staircase, and the home was exquisitely fitted with antique European furnishings. I later learned that Billy’s father Bill Thomas Sr. had acquired and stored antiques for decades, and the house was designed around the furnishings.
At the end of the long hall, we were ushered into the music room with grand pipe organ. Billy Thomas told us the story of how his family had come to this land almost 75 years before and as a child he would ride the local train from Houston every Friday and disembark at the Richards depot and walk to the ranch. He told us when he first came to the ranch money was tight for the family as his father worked at Cameron Iron Works during the week and they literally camped out in a hay barn on the weekends and his mother cooked dinner over an open fire.
This story seemed completely incongruent with the beautifully appointed grand music hall that we were all seated in. Later Billy showed me a painting in the den that showed his family camped out on the land. In the beginning the Thomas Ranch was a dairy farm and he and his mother tended the large herd of dairy cows while his father continued to work in Houston. He made a joke about how all the folks that were cooking with natural gas had contributed to the family success. I later learned but the ranch contained several operating natural gas wells. At one point Billy told me that until he was 60 years old, he had never earned more than $50,000 in his career as a schoolteacher. I think in large part this contributed to the humility of the man. Although obviously very wealthy he was one of the most down to earth people that I have ever met.
He pointed out the floors of the Music Hall and the beautiful design and explained how they had been copied from a grand Manor house in Europe. He delighted in telling the story about how he had convinced his reluctant cabinet maker to build the floor exactly as he wanted by offering his son a 1940 Ford he had admired.
Organist Jim Connors regaled us with a variety of classical and popular music and for the next hour everyone sat in rapt attention. I had never attended an organ concert before and certainly not in a private home. That day made an impression on me I will never forget. This was just the first of many concerts that I attended in Billy’s Music Hall.
Later we were all ushered into the carriage house which doubles is a meeting space where all enjoyed a catered barbecue lunch. It was obvious by the adjacent Depot, train cars, railroad memorabilia that Billy Thomas was passionate about all things railroad. My oldest son accompanied me that day, and he had the nickname Train Boy and he and Billy were soon deep in conversation. Brian is autistic and can be a bit obsessive about trains at times. Billy was unfazed and they developed a rapport that day that has lasted for years. In fact, that day was the beginning of a friendship for my family unlike any other.
The Thomas ranch is a 3000-acre working spread. It includes Grandview Manor, vineyard, sculpture garden, carriage house, train depot and cars, car collection, automotive restoration and machine shop, sawmill, and kiln. Future plans included a live-steam railway. I was fortunate to witness the restoration of several amazing cars at Billy’s shop. I've known many car collectors and been to many car shows and seen lots of restored cars. In many instances these cars were restored by outside sources or purchased in the condition they are shown. It is a rarified number of owners that have their own restoration facilities and restore cars themselves in-house. Billy took great pride that the cars he showed were all fully restored at his facility. He would always call out the few cars in his collection not restored on site. “We didn’t do this one,” he’d say.
Car restorations at Thomas Ranch shops
As our friendship grew, we had numerous automotive adventures together. Billy was always accompanied by three of his loyal staff members, Gary Pool, Dustin Kuta, and Kyle Slaton aka “Team Thomas.” Most wealthy collectors have staff that deliver their cars to major shows, and the boss flies in to meet the car. Billy would always be chauffeured in his Mega-cab truck. He’d say, “I like riding with the boys.”
We traveled to Lexington Ky together for the Keeneland Concours d’Elégance, Keels and Wheels Concours d’Elégance, the January Scottsdale Auctions where he took me to hear “The Mighty Wurlitzer” 1920’s theater organ at Pipe Organ Pizza, AACA Texas Tour of Galveston, Concours d’Elégance of Texas, countless local events tours, dinners, and all sorts of other automotive fun. Many afternoons I’d drop by his office after everyone was gone and we’d discuss the anything, everything, and nothing. We both looked forward to those conversations.
Within the last few weeks Billy had acquired a 1928 Stutz Model BB cabriolet custom bodied by Phillips one of perhaps four in existence. He was like a kid with a new toy. He had thrown all his automotive resources to see this car restored as quickly as possible. He was so proud to own a Stutz which he considered the crowning achievement of his car collecting. He had planned to have his car completed for premiere at the Keels & Wheels Concours d’Elégance late in the spring of 2021.
Billy was also famous for his annual Christmas concerts at Grandview. Over the last decade I’ve heard some amazing artists including Eduardo Lopez de Casas, Jim Connors, Mihai Vatca, Angelo Ferrari, Barbara Padilla, Bille Bruly Johnson, Irma Infante, Aric Schneller, Humberto Corona, Richard Elliot (Mormon Tabernacle organist,) Michael Wood and the West Houston singers, SHSU faculty/alums/students, and many others. Many of us did not feel like it was Christmas until we’d been to Billy’s Christmas concert.
Billy touched so many lives as an educator, friend, mentor, car collector, patron of the arts and all-around wonderful human being. He was generous, caring, with an artist’s appreciation for the world around him. He will be missed by all that knew him, and the world is a poorer place without him. May he rest in everlasting peace. Immediately following is a performance of one of Billy's favorite classinc songs; Ave Maria with vocals by Eduardo Lopez de Casas, Mihai Vatca on grand piano, and JIm Connors on organ at the music hall at Grandview Manor. Please scroll to the end for memorial service information.
Funeral services will be held at Christ United Methodist Church
Tuesday January 26th, 2021
Christ United Methodist Church
4201 State Highway 6 South
College Station, Texas 77845
Visitation and viewing will be from 1-2 pm, Funeral service from 2-3 pm.
The family will have a private burial immediately following.
The link to attend the service virtually is available below or on the Nobles Funeral Chapel Website at www.noblesfuneral.com.