Springfield philanthropist, businesswoman Evelyn Brandt Thomas named SJ-R First Citizen

Evelyn Brandt Thomas, the 2022 State Journal-Register First Citizen, in the board room of the Springfield headquarters of BRANDT Consolidated.
Evelyn Brandt Thomas, the 2022 State Journal-Register First Citizen, in the board room of the Springfield headquarters of BRANDT Consolidated.

Evelyn Brandt Thomas has deep roots in central Illinois.

One of the founders, with her younger brother, Glen Brandt, of Brandt Fertilizer, now BRANDT Consolidated, Inc., in 1953, Brandt Thomas' philanthropic work has cascaded into a number of institutions of higher learning, like the University of Illinois Springfield and Lincoln Land Community College, and other nonprofits, like the Education Center for the Visually Impaired.

"I made my money here," said Brandt Thomas, 99, "and I want to give back to the community."

For a wide range of philanthropic work over decades and her championing of education, particularly women in the field of agriculture, Brandt Thomas is the 2022 State Journal-Register First Citizen Award winner.

The award recognizes Springfield-area residents who give selflessly of their time and resources in service to others.

More:Dick Hart, 2021 State Journal-Register First Citizen Award winner, dies in Springfield

The award has been given out annually since 1963. Last year's recipient was attorney, preservationist, historian and author Richard "Dick" Hart. Hart passed away in Springfield on May 16.

A committee considered over 25 nominations for the award.

Brandt Thomas was a First Citizen finalist in 2014.

A nominator noted that Brandt Thomas' contributions "exemplify a deep, passionate commitment to community service. In addition to serving as a positive role model for youth, Evelyn knows the importance of supporting young people in their pursuit of a college education."

Brandt Thomas established a scholarship for women in business at UIS and the soil lab in the Kreher Agriculture Center at LLCC is named for her late husband, Gordon Thomas, who died in 2003.

Brandt Thomas has founded scholarships at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where Gordon Thomas graduated.

Chosen as an "Outstanding Woman in Agriculture" by Illinois Agri-Women at the Illinois State Fair in 2011, Brandt Thomas said she was pleased to see so many women take the path into the ag business. She credited that to involvement with FFA and 4H, a path she took as a teenager.

"I'm touting it a lot," Brandt Thomas said. "I'm really pleased that we are getting women out there in the business.

"Businesses need somebody who has an ag background: banks, insurance companies, fertilizer companies, chemical companies, almost any company. You need to have somebody who knows something about ag, so that's why I keep telling these girls.

"I've raised a lot of kids in 70 years (at Brandt's), and I've had a lot of girls come back to me and thank me. They tell me, 'You really taught me good work ethic.'"

Brandt Thomas was born on a farm in Salisbury Township, now a part of Gardner Township, with no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Her father, Albert Brandt, farmed with horses the first 12 years of her life.

With her brother, Glen, "GB," Brandt Thomas started Brandt's Fertilizer, an iffy proposition in the early days, especially with some skeptical farmers, she admitted.

"Everybody asks, 'What did you think about when you started this?' I said, 'All we were concerned about was surviving. We were trying to find a way to make a decent living,'" Brandt Thomas recalled.

Evelyn Brandt Thomas
Evelyn Brandt Thomas

"It was a great team. We each had our own strengths. (Glen) had the gift of gab, and he could sell. Of course, I had a bad reputation of being a tightwad, so I always held on to the money.

"Most things we did back then, I was probably about the only woman around."

Reflectively, Brandt Thomas said a good feeling is how the company has enhanced employees' lives and how the communities where they reside have benefited from it.

"It's been rewarding," Brandt Thomas said, "the impact we've had in the communities and helping the farmers get greater profits, and they're back also spending money in (those communities)."

Brandt Thomas' fundraising for the Educational Center for the Visually Impaired, which is near the company’s worldwide headquarters on Koke Mill Road, has "really been my passion," she said. The center works to improve the quality of life for people who are blind or visually impaired by providing education, training and development opportunities through services and programs.

Although it was established to honor Gordon Thomas, it is personal for Brandt Thomas, who was diagnosed with macular degeneration in 2000. Her brother Glen eventually lost sight in one eye after an accident in 1969.

Brandt Thomas has gained her fair share of recognition through the years -- recipient of the ATHENA International Award presented by the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce in 2009; awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters by UIS in 2014 and inducted into the Senior Illinoisans Hall of Fame in 2020 -- though a nominator insisted "it's not ever been the reason why she does what she does."

At 99, Brandt Thomas still makes it into work every day, "my therapy," she said. Brandt Thomas joked employees have nicknamed her "The Hawk," but she may as well be a proud parent.

"I tell everybody, this (company) is like a child I raised," she said. "I'm the one who planted the seed 70 years ago and got it going. Everybody else has helped it grow."

Contact Steven Spearie at 217-622-1788, sspearie@sj-r.com or twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.

This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: IL philanthropist, businesswoman Evelyn Brandt Thomas is First Citizen