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Thomas H. Wiles

  • Thomas Wiles pic

    Over some four decades, photography instructor Thomas H. Wiles captured the hearts of students he encountered and the soul of a campus as he chronicled the evolution of an obscure historically black college into the University of Maryland Eastern Shore through the lens of his camera.

    Along the way, he endeared himself to nearly everyone he encountered and also became a university alumnus, earning a degree in education in 1973. 

    Wiles graduated from Washington High School in Princess Anne and joined the U.S. Army during World War II. He served in the Pacific theater, but did not see combat.   

    After his discharge, Wiles attended the New York Institute of Photography and studied additional techniques of the arts in Vermont. University yearbooks took note that his professional credentials showed he also studied at the School of Modern Photography, the Dascher School of Photography and the Winona School of Professional Photography.  

    Wiles was hired in 1951 as the photography instructor at Maryland State College, where he followed in the footsteps of  Moneta Sleet Jr. , who left the faculty to work as a magazine photographer.  

    Believed to be the institution’s first full-time white faculty member – at least since it began awarding bachelor’s degrees in the mid-20th century – Wiles also assumed the unofficial position of photographer of campus life and culture.  

    In 1953, he climbed aboard an airplane and snapped panoramic aerial photos of the campus, images believed to be the first of their kind.  

    Wiles told The (Salisbury) Daily Times in 2006 “it wasn’t my duty to be the campus photographer, but I did it anyway.”

    “I photographed all the assembly speakers,” he said, “and any other social or athletic event … and all the individual student photos in the yearbooks” without compensation, His efforts did not go unnoticed: the Hawk yearbook staff dedicated the 1980 edition to him as a tribute.  

    The university’s archives are rich with the black and white images that Wiles captured of civil rights icons  Martin Luther King Jr.  and  Coretta Scott King , entertainers Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Major League Baseball's Jackie Robinson, NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall and firebrand Congressman Adam Clayton Powell of New York.  

    “If any big wigs came there,” he told The Times, “I photographed them.”  

    There was perhaps no greater honor during Wiles’ tenure, however, than to be selected campus queen and sit for a formal portrait by him. An enduring tribute to Wiles’ work is the Queens’ Gallery on the Student Services Center’s second floor.  

    “He was an excellent, all-around photographer and a superb portrait photographer,” colleague Ernest Satchell told the newspaper at the time. “He’s also a great guy.”  

    Satchell had the unique distinction of being one of Wiles’ students during his undergraduate days as a Maryland State student, and then as chairman of UMES’ art department being his boss.  

    Gregg McIntosh, a 1981 UMES alumnus, said Wiles was “a rock solid member of the UMES community. As a white male enduring unimaginable life on campus during the 1960's and 1970's, it gave him food for amazing stories of courage, and cultural togetherness. He was a quiet champion of the Civil Rights part of Maryland’s history.”  

    Often described as a Renaissance man, family and friends viewed him as “a true artist,” according to his daughter Linda Wiles. She said he hand-crafted a rocking chair, a violin, a mandolin and sailboat. His interests ran the gamut of wine-making and fishing to pottery and sketching.  

    “Over the years it became apparent to anyone who spent time with him he was unique,” Linda Wiles wrote. “A quiet man, yet talented at everything he attempted - and with an artist's flair. He always looked through the camera lens at his surroundings and captured the essence in photos and his own life in a true artist's fashion.”  

    Wiles retired in 1989 to a farm in nearby Mount Vernon on Wicomico Creek, keeping busy “checking on neighbors, making the circuit on his bicycle or … in his golf cart with (his) dog at his side, taking fresh vegetables from his garden, picking up pecans, splitting wood or some other project he thought up.”  

    Editor's note: Wiles died Feb. 26, 2017; he was 92.