Before he could complete his doctorate degree, Thomas Simerly suddenly passed away. In December, his parents, Max and Teresa, pictured above with their son’s photo, accepted his degree on his behalf. (Contributed photo)

By Richard Rourk

For one Unicoi County man, his light burned for a short amount of time, but it burned bright with an intensity that most don’t see in a lifetime.

Thomas Simerly was born to Max and Teresa Simerly on April 27, 1988. The young Simerly grew up like most in Unicoi County – surrounded by the wild. It was this wild spirit that drove Simerly to research and observe everything around him. Frogs were a big part of that research and drive for knowledge that Simerly would display over the years. Simerly grew a fondness for frogs and all animals in general.

Simerly was drawn to science and public office at a young age. 4-H gave Simerly a forum to explore and gain experience in his life. Simerly sought out to do his best and won numerous 4-H awards for his hard work.

This work ethic and desire to learn drove Simerly to seek higher education and he received a scholarship to attend King University in Bristol.

“He got a call while I was out of town working that he had received an offer from King,” Thomas’ mother, Teresa Simerly who serves as the clerk and master for Unicoi County, told The Erwin Record. “He was so excited.”

It was while attending King University that Simerly learned to blaze a path on his own while not forgetting where he came from. Simerly got involved with student government and his drive and personality led him to be elected the Student Government Association president while attending King.

“He and his friend Nathan King got the Young Republican program started at King College,” Thomas’ father, Max Simerly, said.

Simerly received his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from King College.

The next stop for Simerly was at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. There, he received his master’s degree in chemistry. While at ETSU Simerly had one of his papers published in his field.

Blacksburg, Virginia, was Simerly’s next stop and for three semesters he studied at Virginia Tech University. As Simerly moved further and further from home, so did his effect on those around him.

“He never met a stranger,” Teresa said.

Simerly ended up moving to Raleigh, North Carolina, to attend North Carolina State University. It was in Raleigh that Simerly settled in and felt at home. Simerly attended the farmers market regularly and ventured out to explore the city when he wasn’t busy on his scholarly endeavors.

“He met people everywhere he went,” Max said.

Simerly was working on completing his doctorate, this time in textiles chemistry, at the Wilson College of Textiles on the North Carolina State campus, when tragedy struck. Simerly passed away suddenly on May 15, 2018, just a few weeks after he turned 30 years old.

Simerly was set to graduate in December 2018. His father and mother received a call from the campus of North Carolina State shortly before the December graduation date with some unexpected news. Simerly had completed the necessary credits to receive his master’s degree in textiles chemistry posthumously. The Simerlys were invited to the campus to receive Thomas’ master’s degree during the graduation ceremony.

“Everyone was so nice there,” Teresa said.

In 30 short years, Thomas reached for the stars and worked hard to achieve excellence in academics and made an impact on those around him.

The spirit of Thomas Simerly, and so many like him, is still alive today in Unicoi County. Every time you see a child looking into a mountain stream with wonderment, every time you see young men and women stopping to help a stranded motorist, every time you see a student pushing harder to find the answer on an assignment, you see the spirit of Unicoi County.