TARPON SPRINGS — When Sue Thomas died unexpectedly at the age of 77 on July 28 following a brief illness, the news sent shockwaves throughout the community.
Thomas, a former president of the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce and the local Rotary Club, was well known in town for her love of photography, nature, and the arts. She was always taking photos at city events, often turning her candid snapshots into personalized calendars for her closest friends.
After she died, her longtime husband, Ron, detailed his wife’s final wishes, which included not having a public memorial service. “Per Sue’s wishes, there will be no services,” Thomas posted on Facebook on July 31. “She donated her body to the Florida University system for research purposes. She is being taken to UCF this weekend.”
With Sue’s friends and acquaintances searching for a way to publicly recognize the woman who touched so many lives and had such a big impact in the community, Tarpon Art Guild director Heather Risley, a longtime friend and collaborator, stepped in and organized “The Back Wall Exhibit, Photos by Sue Thomas,” a collection of 21 photos that will begin with a kickoff reception Saturday, Sept. 11, from 5-7 p.m. at the TAG Gallery at 161 E. Tarpon Ave. “Sue and I were friends for a long time,” Risley said by phone two weeks before the event. “Our friendship started about a decade ago when she was president of the chamber, and I was president of the Tarpon Springs Art Association and it continued through the years. … She was always present and always photographed everything we did. So, the news of her passing was a shock. It was like, what can we do to honor her?”
The idea for the photo exhibit came together quickly, Risley said, and Ron Thomas and Sue’s sister, Gaye Sawicki, “were very gracious about bringing us photos,” and many others chipped in, including current chamber president and CEO, Jean Hungiville, and fellow local photographer and Thomas’ friend, Lisa Sibley. Sibley, who is organizing a slideshow retrospective of Sue’s life, which was filled with travel, adventure, and an omnipresent smile, said via text “the best way a fellow photographer can honor another is through images. Sue literally lived around the globe. The slideshow, chronicling her life and smile in pictures from childhood through her amazing adult life, is a fitting remembrance to a remarkable woman who touched so many lives.”
According to Risley, the exhibit, which will run through the month of September, and specifically the reception, isn’t meant to be a somber remembrance but a joyful celebration of Thomas’ joyous life.
“It’s a chance for us to be able to get together and a way to support each other,” Risley said. “When we got this news (of Sue’s passing) it was so difficult, this is one way we could celebrate Sue and her love of nature and her love of people. Sue would never go to funerals, but this is more of a celebration and a joyous occasion. We just hope it’s a very positive way for her friends to get together and remember her.”