In 2004, current Northrop Grumman senior principal engineer of system safety William “Tipper” Thomas’ life was just beginning to blossom. As a three-sport athlete at Randallstown High School in Baltimore, Maryland, William had earned a football scholarship to his father’s alma mater, Morgan State University, and was on the way to fulfilling a lifelong dream.
“I could smell the grass of the football field,” he said. “Playing collegiate football for Morgan State literally guided every decision that I made.”
Then, trouble started in William’s senior year. A lunchroom quarrel that escalated for a week between William’s teammate and another classmate turned into something much more serious on a Friday afternoon at a charity basketball game.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be there,” he said. “The school bus that was supposed to take me home didn’t show up, so I decided to go to the game to see if I could find a ride.”
At the game, William met up with friends and arranged for a cousin to pick him up. As he was waiting outside for his ride home, a black BMW approached the area outside of the gym at Randallstown High School; the tension in the crowd rose.
A small group of men approached the crowd, including William and his teammates, and initiated a confrontation. Then, one of the men returned to their car and gunshots emerged from the direction of the black BMW.
William began to flee from the area, but looking back noticed a classmate who had fallen and was struggling to escape.
“She was pretty much trampled over,” he said. “I ran back to go help her up, and that’s when I felt this really bad burning sensation in my neck.”
Momentarily ignoring the pain as his adrenaline flowed, William picked the young woman up and began to carry her to safety but then felt another shot in his shoulder.
“As I pushed her behind a car, I fell to the ground, and when I fell to the ground, I felt the lower half of my body wash away in a wave of numbness,” he said. “And I remember trying to get up to try to run or at least duck behind a car, and I can’t move.”
William woke up to hear crying and see his basketball coach, high school secretary and his cousin, who had just arrived, standing over him.
“The look on my cousin’s face told me all I needed to know; that I was in bad shape,” William said.
After being rushed by helicopter to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, William woke up in a neck brace with tubes connected to him all over his body. Remaining in critical condition for days, he learned that three of his classmates, including two teammates, were also shot in the same incident but sustained less impactful injuries. He also learned the four men who initiated the incident had been apprehended.
Almost a week later, doctors confirmed William’s biggest fear — he would never be able to use the lower half of his body again.
“It was devastating,” he said. “I had a dream and a vision in my mind for 17 years.”
Just after he received the news, William’s grandmother offered advice that would help reshape his life — whether he was walking or in a wheelchair, he could still cross the stage at his college graduation. From there, William set out to work towards his new goal: earn his degree and become an engineer.
With this new motivation, he learned how to physically live with his disability and attended Morgan State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.
As a senior principal engineer of system safety at Northrop Grumman, William’s job now is all about preventing the same type of injury that he suffered years ago. William helps conduct a rigorous series of analysis and testing on a wide variety of Northrop Grumman systems before they reach the customer.
“This is my niche because my background is one of personal injury, and that is one of the things we are looking to avoid,” William said. “Our job is to ensure that the hardware, software and firmware doesn’t create, contribute to or sustain a hazardous condition that could harm personnel. That memory of me losing my body causes me to have a drive unlike anyone else to get the job right.”
In addition to his work with Northrop Grumman, William runs a nonprofit foundation, the William “Tipper” Thomas Foundation that supports STEM education initiatives in Baltimore.
In recognition of his work and the way he’s overcome extraordinary circumstances, William was selected to speak at an upcoming online program commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, sponsored by the George H. W. Bush Foundation, “Let the Shameful Wall of Exclusion Come Down.” He will speak about the importance of ADA accessibility and inclusion in the workplace.
As William’s career and life come full circle, empowering him to take up causes and activities that hold particular meaning to him, he insists he is here for a purpose and continues to affect others’ lives positively in the wake of his own personal tragedy.
“I believe all things happen for a reason, even if that reason hurts.”
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