By Chip Walters

Celebration CEO Ron Thomas was honored by the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association on Thursday night when he was presented the “Reese L. Smith, Jr. Distinguished Service Award” at the organization’s annual awards banquet.

This award is presented by the TWHBEA to the individual who best exemplifies the same dedication, commitment, and personal involvement of Reese L. Smith, Jr.

Thomas became Executive Secretary of The Celebration in 1984. That title was later changed to Chief Executive Officer. He is also show manager of the world championship horse show. Thomas has been involved in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry since his days of working for legendary trainer Sam Paschal at City View Stables in Murfreesboro in the early 1960’s.

“It is certainly fitting that Ron should receive the Reese L. Smith, Jr. Award,” said Celebration Chairman Pat Marsh. “Mr. Smith was a true gentleman and servant to the industry. Ron Thomas reflects those characteristics very well.”

Thomas’ impact on the industry and The Celebration are easily seen. Under his watch, The Celebration has grown into the largest single-breed horse show in the world. Its reach has expanded with attendance records falling almost every year.

Working closely with the board of directors, Thomas spearheaded the project that eventually became Calsonic Arena. The 4,600-seat indoor facility has become a drawing card of its own with events booked nearly 40 weekends per year and drawing an additional $15-million in revenue to the community annually.

Thomas also began The Celebration’s Corporate Sponsorship Program. The program has brought in over $12-million in revenue during the last 20 years with the yearly total going over $1,000,000 for the first time in 2004. In turn, annual prize money has steadily risen to over $650,000. Thomas is a graduate of the Middle Tennessee State College and did graduate work at Sangamon State University in Springfield, IL. From there, he began a highly successful career in the insurance industry that stretched for nearly 20 years.

During the Thomas era, The Celebration has implemented a Celebration Advisory Council and Young Trainers Council. In addition, the new barn project was completed, as was Champions Arena, the new front entrance, The Celebration Plaza, the Owners Wall, and daily accomplishments that contribute to the success of the company and are too numerous to mention. Mr. Thomas is proud to have an open-door policy that encourages feedback from owners, trainers, exhibitors, and fans alike. He has helped guide The Celebration into an era of new ideas, fairness, and openness.

Throughout the years, some have suggested that he give up his role as Show Manager to concentrate more on hospitality and the corporate sponsorship side of things. However, he is quick to point out that the “engine room” that drives The Celebration is the crowning of World Champion Tennessee Walking Horses, which makes his job as show manager vitally important.

Professionally, he has been a member of the National Horse Show Commission and helped write its current rule book. His career in the insurance business saw him rise rapidly through the ranks with Shelter Insurance and the Willis & Corroon Company of Nashville.

In 1996 he was selected to be an Olympic Torch Bearer for the Olympic Games held in Atlanta. He has served on the Chamber of Commerce Board, the Our Town Board, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame Board, Tennessee Festivals and Events, and Kiwanis Club.

Two of his proudest achievements are Ashley and Kyle, his children. Ashley is a 23-year-old real estate broker in Murfreesboro. She began working for Connie Nixon in the Celebration office at age 13 and stayed with her in the summer for seven years. Kyle is now 20 years old and began working as a Celebration ring escort at age 11 and continues today as a ringmaster for the Spring Fun Show, Mule Show, and The Celebration.

Most recently, Ron and fiancé Cathy Neal were married in New Orleans. The couple makes their home in Murfreesboro, but enjoy spending weekends on their houseboat, SHOWTIME, on Old Hickory Lake. “The Celebration congratulates Ron and his family for being honored with this most-deserving award,” Marsh continued.

Thomas follows in a long line of outstanding individuals who have been bestowed this award. Past winners of this prestigious honor include Dr. DeWitt Owen, Dr. Nathan Thomas, Dr. Tom Vaughn, David Howard, Tom Bohl, Tom Blankenship, John Lindahl, Harrell Brawner, Charles Gleghorn and Walt Chism.