Publication Date

December 1, 1990

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

Deep in the recesses of a labyrinthine basement, squeezed between the mail room and the accounting offices, the AHA membership staff face the formidable task of meeting the needs of over 18,000 historians, schools, and historical organizations. Those members and institutions who stop to wonder how their subscriptions reach them on time every month and how their mailing list orders are processed correctly now have a new person to whom they may express their gratitude—Carlton Thomas, a long-time employee who was recently promoted to membership secretary. Thomas replaces Phyllis Coleman, who retired in June 1990. When asked about his recent promotion, Thomas replied, “I love it. There’s a challenge in it, like coaching. It makes you go for it.”

Thomas’s career at the AHA started on in June of 1975, when he was hired as a part-time custodian. He was soon promoted to a full-time “utility man,” a position in which he “did a little bit of everything.” During his first few years Thomas didn’t expect to remain at the AHA for long, but once he became a membership clerk in 1977 he decided to stay. “It was fun,” he recalled. “I didn’t have any trouble coming to work or getting up in the morning.” Thomas noted that money isn’t the most significant part of a job for him, insisting that “peace of mind” and having a good rapport with one’s co-workers are much more important.

Thomas and Coleman established a good rapport almost immediately. Although at first they each had their own separate workloads, eventually “either one of us could walk away and know the job would still get done.” Coleman covered mailing list orders, institutional subscriptions, and correspondence, while Thomas handled individual member records and was in charge of the filing system that he said essentially constituted the backbone of membership.

These duties evolved over the thirteen years that Thomas spent as a membership clerk, particularly after the installation of a Hewlett-Packard computer in 1981. Computerized databases now allow membership staff to more easily update listings of members’ addresses as well as save money by decreasing the amount of returned mail that would otherwise have to be readdressed. The installation of a more extensive IBM computer system and a high quality printer in 1986 further enhanced the membership department’s ability to produce all of its letters and labels in-house, thus cutting down on printing charges. This in-house printing capability enables the membership department to tailor mailing list and label orders more closely to the customers’ individual requests and to have a faster turn-around time for such orders.

And the names have been coming in—since 1977 the AHA has increased its membership by over 4,000. Thomas has attributed much of this growth to a rise in the number of student members who join the AHA to learn more about opportunities and trends in the field. Although many of these students leave the AHA once they get their degrees, the new membership each year more than makes up for the loss. Thomas noted that growth has been especially fast over the past two years, with an increase of about 1800 members during that time. The most popular time for new membership each year, Thomas observed, is before and during the annual meeting.

Once a person decides to join the AHA, Thomas processes the membership application and adds the new member’s name into the computer records. Unlike some other associations, where individual members are added at the beginning of each fiscal year, membership cycles at the AHA begin the month the application is received. This system allows Thomas to process about 2,000 membership renewals a month instead of being overwhelmed with a flood of renewal forms at the end of each year.

About a year ago dues categories were changed to reflect more accurately the earning spread of senior historians, adding two new categories over $40,000. Another reason that members must renew their subscriptions each year is that as their careers and salaries progress, their dues rise correspondingly. The most common salary range, Thomas reported, is $20,000 to $39,999.

Despite his involvement with each individual member’s application, subscriptions, and renewals, Thomas related that the only time he ever interacts with many of the members is at the annual meeting. A few members will telephone with questions or individual requests, but for most of them membership is a department to which they give little thought unless their Perspectives fails to arrive. Nonetheless, Thomas said that he does tend to remember the names that he encounters year after year and that he enjoys matching names to faces each December.

Now that he’s started in his position as head of the membership department, Thomas said that one of his major challenges will be to develop an efficient working relationship with his new assistant, Pamela Scott. Scott, a native of South Carolina and a graduate of Sumter Area Technical College, will be in charge of the 3500 institutional members and will take over the clerical duties. As she becomes more familiar with the AHA, she will eventually handle some correspondence as well. Scott said what she enjoys most about her new job is the independence in the position. She finds Thomas “great” and “easy to get along with.”

Scott isn’t the only one who enjoys Thomas’s company. Much of Thomas’s time and energy outside of the office is spent coaching a local football team. He enjoys acting as a role model to the young adults on the team, many of whom are still trying to find themselves. Thomas feels that many of his players face difficulties in life due to a lack of love in childhood. He does his best to act as a source of guidance and support both on and off of the field.

When he’s not running the AHA membership department or coaching his team Thomas enjoys cooking, a skill that he picked up from his father, who was a professional chef. Thomas reports that he loves to cook for a crowd, a talent that is greatly appreciated by the other members of the AHA staff. Although it may curtail his coaching activities, Thomas is considering returning to college next year to study computer programming. Fortunately he’s only planning to attend college part-time, so neither members nor staff need to worry about Thomas leaving the AHA any time soon.