When anyone refers to the president at Jasper High School, few are thinking of a hotel owner from New York.
Thomas Ward is busy almost every day. Ward has been the student council president, the senior class president, the yearbook editor, the National Honors Society president, Mu Alpha Theta (the math honor society) vice president, Agape Club secretary, Fellowship of Christian Athletes ("The Wave") president. He was also voted Mr. Jasper High School and Most Likely to Succeed.
That's beside the other activities he's been in, including a mentoring program he has started at the school and running up second in balloting last year to a debate champion from Huntsville while running for governor at Boys State.
Sophomore Mayson Slaughter, a rising student leader in the mentoring program, said motivation is Ward's key quality.
"He never talks down to people. He always lifts people up, making them the best they can be," Slaughter said, noting Ward has been "a visual example" for him. All the students look up to him and feel easy around him.
"He is probably one of the most well respected students in this school," he said. "When you think of scholar student, you think of Thomas Ward."
"He's certainly led in our school," Jasper High Principal Jonathan Allen said. "We jokingly call him the fifth administrator because he did so many things here to lead our students."
"A lot of times, when I walk though the hallways, they don't call me by name," Ward said with a smile. "They call me 'Mr. President.' I try to laugh it off and not think too much about it."
The students aren't alone. At Jasper football games, Ward many times has given the student-led prayers. Mike Cordle, the yearbook sponsor, noted public address announcer Bill Watt at football games has referred to him as "the next governor of Alabama." (Watt has been known to throw in senator and attorney general.)
Ward, 17, the son of Caroline Ivey of Jasper and Tom Ward of Birmingham, has become known for his ease and intellect around adults and students alike, his community and school service, and his academic achievements. He has speaks well at functions, with mature phrasing adults would use. He is at ease mingling with Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox at the Kiwanis Club of Jasper or Command Sergeant Major Michael A. Grinston of U.S. Army Forces Command.
Academic honors have come his way as well. He and other students with high ACT scores have their photos displayed at the school's entrance, as he scored a 32 out of a possible 36. The latest came just recently, when the senior won the American Legion's state oratorical contest, winning $5,000. He will now go on to the national competition, set for Indianapolis, Indiana, in April.
Speeches were to center around the U.S. Constitution, which led Ward to speak on unity, which he feels is vital.
"I actually based my speech around John Dickinson," one of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who wrote one of the earliest patriotic songs of the pre-Revolutionary War era, using the phrase, "united we stand, divided we fall."
"I go through the whole song and I bring in constitutional principles, along with some family history of mine," Ward said. "I speak about how, if our republic is going to live, then we have to participate and we have to come together as one, because united we stand, divided we fall."
Cordle said "When Mr. Allen first came on the job, we were talking about our students. I said, 'There is one student you really need to meet, and that's Thomas Ward. He's going to be president of everything.'"
He said by the 10th grade, one could see other students following Ward, displaying leadership abilities even then.
"I've been here 39 years, and we've never had a senior class president and a mover and a shaker like Thomas Ward," he said, calling Ward a catalyst. "He just takes things and does them. Basically as yearbook editor, he gives everybody their assignments and tells them what to do. They don't even need me."
Cordle noted Ward's family has good genes. Both of Ward's sisters are now in Ole Miss: Elizabeth Ward is a senior going for a degree in biology, while Mary Frances Ward is in the Mississippi Excellence in Teaching Program as a special education major. A third sister, Sarah Margaret Ward, is in the seventh grade.
Ward said his mother has been the major foundation of his life.
"She's been the backbone when it seemed like everything was stacked against me at times," he said. "She was there to push me through, telling me I could do anything that I set my mind to. Without her, I wouldn't be who I am really. And my sisters, they set the tone."
Ivey noted she is most proud of his integrity and that his is strong in his faith, using that as a guide on a daily basis.
"I am so incredibly proud and sometimes it overwhelms me," she said, adding that at the same time she reminds him and her other children of the song, "Always Stay Humble and Kind" from Tim McGraw.
"Thats something we say in our house a lot," she said. "I remind him about that a lot."
She noted he has many strengths.
"He's always been one to naturally connect with people, either through like experiences or similar interests, she said. "He's never been shy. He's always had an outgoing personality. He's jovial, friendly and caring - always has cared and is not a judgmental person at all. He'll do anything he can to help somebody."
Surprisingly, Ward said he didn't always enjoy school and learning (although his mother said he was actually always a good student). While he is now 185 pounds, he once wanted to play football, playing a 250-pound defensive end on Jasper's varsity squad.
"I just wanted to play football, but in the sophomore year, I got two concussions within a span of three weeks," he said. "I was struggling to remember things. There was a three-day span I have no clue what happened."
With his mother leaving the decision up to him, he decided to give up football.
"Right when I made that decision, all of a sudden, a sense of intellectual curiosity was birthed," he said, as he realized his college football dreams would have to be replaced with other goals. "In the second semester of junior year, that is when it really went into what it is today."
Ward loves American history, and "any movement with a great leader like the civil rights movement, specifically. I really think it is a beautiful story of how Martin Luther King Jr. rose up a preacher, with a peaceful protest in mind, and having tons of people just follow his lead for the great good, really." He also looks up to President Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Rep. James Mitchell Ashley of Ohio, who proposed the 13th Amendment, ending slavery after a second push for passage.
He called these as examples of "great leaders in times of great crisis rising up. That's what I love. Those are the type of people I love studying, because that's who I want to be, really."
Moreover, Ward said he is also involved outside of school in the Alabama Youth Leadership Development Program, a statewide program with high school leaders from across Alabama gathering to hear speakers and participate in small group sessions.
He is also "very involved" at Desperation Church in Jasper, where pastor Adam Hicks has been impressed.
"Thomas is an amazing guy. His love for Jesus and people are unmatched," Hicks said. "This guy is so influential, yet so humble as well. I personally believe we will see Thomas Ward making a difference for years to come."
Ward noted he also picked up track this semester, trying to run 7 or 8 miles a day, while his mother notes he also is a lifeguard at the Natatorium.
Ward notes for all the kidding about "Mr. President," he does have public service ambitions. He waiting for word from some colleges, but he's been admitted to the Lott Leadership Institute at the University of Mississippi, sharing with its coordinator his heart for helping other people.
"I said, 'Look, if I'm going to be in Mississippi, I want to be working in the Delta region, one of the poorest regions of the nation, and I want to spend my time serving.' Then (the coordinator) showed me all the opportunities available." He told her he would like to eventually go to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to get a master's degree in social policy and hopefully a Ph.D in time.
After schooling, he was not sure what he would do, noting there are many routes to get to Congress. "But I'm looking for a route there," he said.
Asked what Jasper High had done for him, he said the school gave him the opportunity to change people's lives and be around teachers and administrators who care and want to do great things. "They're just in it for the right reasons," he said, adding that they are supportive. "They want students to succeed."
He noted the diversity in the school also has allowed him to interact with people of all different levels, helping him to develop core ideas of unity.