FAIRFIELD, Conn.—Daniel Thomas has always liked to make things happen. Telling this 21-year-old "you can't" only spurs him to try harder.
Growing up in Bridgeport's South End, on a diet that sometimes was little more than ramen noodles, Thomas early in life heard plenty "you can'ts."
As a high school freshman, Thomas wanted to be a scientist. His mother, a nurse's aide, was supportive. His father, someone Thomas says he didn't see much, told him that he'd never make it to college and was likely destined for jail.
Thomas says his family hovered at the poverty line, though his mother never let their lives feel impoverished. Once, his mom's house was foreclosed on and the family spent a week in a hotel.
Thomas graduated seventh in his class at Bassick High School in 2004 with nine college credits already earned. He compiled a scrapbook of his dozen college acceptance letters. Four offered him free rides.
Today, Thomas is a senior at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, where he is finishing a double major in business and philosophy.
He holds $1 million in assets property he bought through his "part-time" job as a real estate agent at Century 21 Access America in Bridgeport. Among his holdings are a condominium unit off Madison Avenue in Bridgeport, where he lives, and a mini-shopping plaza at 988 State St., also in Bridgeport, which includes a coin-operated laundry and caf.
"My insurance broker says I'm a millionaire because I'm insured for a million. In cash, I'm not sure when that will happen. I take a lot of risk," he says. His latest ambition is to become an international real estate investor who will "build something beautiful that will last forever."
He sees his future patterned in the mold of Robert Scinto, the Shelton-based developer who has transformed that city with his corporate developments, rather than the showy developer/casino owner Donald Trump.
"Robert Scinto is a big motivation to me. Like me, he comes from modest backgrounds," Thomas says. Like Thomas, Scinto grew up in a family of modest means in Bridgeport and attended SHU.
Scinto met his young admirer in his role as chairman of the William Pitt Foundation. A scholarship from the foundation is one of several Thomas strung together to pay for college.
"He's a terrific boy," Scinto says of Thomas. During one encounter, Scinto told him to read a poem by Rudyard Kipling that cites the importance not only of dreaming, but carrying out those dreams.
"In real estate, you need the ability to imagine what could be and then do it," says Scinto.
Thomas pegs part of his successes to having the right people supporting and motivating him.
Bassick, he says, had good teachers and bad. He counts Susan Spivack of Bassick's Business Magnet; Kathleen Schwartz Young, an English teacher; and Tyrone Zandy, a math teacher, among those who influenced him most profoundly. Spivack and Zandy have since retired.
At Bassick, Thomas was captain of the track and soccer teams. As such, he says he won respect from peers and avoided teasing about his academic pursuits.
"I have friends who have gone a different way, who have joined gangs. I still see them. I have friends from Bassick who went to Fairfield U., Yale and Cornell," he says. "It all depends on who you are and how you can handle it."
For others, it was not as much of a "chess game" as it was for him, Thomas says.
Thomas seems able to plan his moves several steps out, but sometimes can't help getting caught up in the moment. He remembers wondering what he had gotten himself into as he took his first class at Sacred Heart.
"Mentally, I was there. But I was like, should I be here? Can I do this?" he says.
In contrast, the Daniel Thomas that Bassick Principal Ronald Remy remembers stood out as someone who was mature beyond his years, very serious and purposeful.
To hear what Thomas has made of his life since he graduated three years ago, Remy says, prompts him to re-evaluate what he's done with his own life.
Thomas also has written a self-published book of poetry and is close to finishing a second book, "Love is the Strongest Force: Theories of Purpose," which is due out in the spring. Thomas is shopping for a publisher.
In his freshman year of college, using his mother Pamela Thomas' "last $500," Thomas says he took a six-week real estate course so he could derive income from a steady part-time job. At 19, he became one of Century 21's youngest agents.
In the first year, he says he grossed $96,000 in commissions, selling mostly to investors. He used his first commission check on the sale of a two-family house on Beardsley Street in Bridgeport as the down payment on property of his own.
Last year, he established his own real estate investment company, Eminent Homes LLC.
He also owns the coin-operated laundry in the plaza he bought, and says it's doing well. At the opening, his father even stopped by.
"He said, 'Hi,' but there wasn't much to talk about," says Thomas.
At SHU, Thomas was on the varsity track team until being sidelined by an injury.
He plays the piano, and finished third in a recent campus recital. He has dabbled in ballroom dancing and is president of the school's Business Club. In his junior year, he studied for a semester in Italy and discovered a love for art, which he now collects.
Thomas decided to attend Sacred Heart over schools that accepted him, like Dartmouth and the University of Connecticut, he says, because it was the most willing to let him do everything.
"SHU was, 'You want to run track, run track. You want to be a GE scholar, be a GE scholar. Want to travel abroad, do it That energy is what brought me here," he says.
The GE Foundation Scholar Program another one of Thomas' scholarships supports high-achieving minority students. As long as participants keep their grades up, they receive financial and moral support, a mentor and the opportunity to attend workshops.
"And a thump on the head when I think he needs it," says Virginia Stevens, director of Sacred Heart's GE Foundation Scholar program.
In Thomas' case, she's more or less played the role of cheerleader.
"I don't know where he's going, but he's on his way," she says. "I can't keep up."
For his part, Thomas says, "I'm going to continue taking risks. I'm young."
But among his goals is to earn a pilot's license. If he had not gotten scholarships to pay for college, he planned to join the Air Force.
He also wants to pursue a master's degree once he graduates, starting with studies abroad in SHU's Luxembourg program.
But Thomas hopes to keep a foothold in Bridgeport, shower his mom with diamonds and use his philosophy degree once he retires.
"I'd love to teach philosophy when I retire," he says. "Hang out with kids and talk about life. I'd rather teach philosophy than business at the end of the day."