Centenarian entrepreneur, philanthropist Evelyn Brandt Thomas awarded prestigious Order of Lincoln

Evelyn Brandt Thomas with a walker receives an award certificate on stage, flanked by two men in formal attire holding the document.
Evelyn Brandt Thomas receives the prestigious Order of Lincoln award from the Lincoln Academy of Illinois Vice Chancellor Todd Shapiro (left) and Governor J.B. Pritzker.

Evelyn Brandt Thomas turned 100 on her last birthday, and just over 100 days into this year, she was awarded the prestigious Order of Lincoln by the Lincoln Academy of Illinois. This award is Illinois’ highest honor for professional achievement and public service. 

Thomas is the owner and co-founder of BRANDT, a family-owned, global company that offers plant nutrition, crop protection, and agronomic insights. 

The award honors not only her business success but also her philanthropic initiatives, which have benefited the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, among countless other entities across the state and beyond.

In memory of her late husband, Gordon Thomas, Evelyn contributed to the renovation of Turner Hall, home to the Department of Crop Sciences in ACES. 

Evelyn has also invested in Illinois 4-H, the renowned youth organization (led by the University of Illinois Extension in ACES) that focuses on “engaging youth to reach their fullest potential while advancing the field of youth development." 

In fact, she has championed philanthropic contributions from The BRANDT Foundation totaling over $75,000 to support 4-H Food Advocacy grants, the Hunger Ambassador program, 4-H Ag Tech, and FarmBot initiatives. These gifts have provided momentum for youth who want to help solve food insecurity by hosting meal packaging events or creating community gardens through scholarships and seed grants.

Evelyn was born in a farming community near Solsberry, Illinois, in 1924. Young Evelyn could not have imagined where life would take her and that she would one day be one of fewer than 400 Lincoln Laureates. “I was overwhelmed when I received the Order of Lincoln,” Evelyn said. “Very distinguished people have received this award.”

She grew up knowing the hard work that goes into farming — gathering eggs and milking cows whether it was rain or shine. Her father was a tenant farmer, so her family lived on three different farms while she was growing up, but everywhere they went, the work continued. 

Evelyn joined Illinois 4-H when she was twelve years old where she “did a bit of everything,” including raising a calf named Trixie, baking sugar cookies, showing chickens and swine, and even demonstrating her sewing skills. 

After five years in 4-H, Evelyn joined Rural Youth in Sangamon County. This Illinois Extension social club was formed during the Great Depression for young single men and women. In nearby Brown County, Gordon was also involved in Rural Youth. A social event in 1948 in Morgan County brought the couple together, and just two years later, they were married. 

Evelyn attended a business college. Gordon attended Western Illinois University for two years before transferring to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He was a charter member of IlliDell, a Greek fraternity on campus whose chapter room is named in his honor. 

Gordon graduated from ACES in 1950 with a degree in agronomy. He went on to work for the state of Illinois as the head of the soil laboratory. 

In 1953, upon looking for a unique employment opportunity, Evelyn and her brother, Glen, created the company that is now known simply as BRANDT. They started out by custom-supplying anhydrous ammonia using a borrowed tractor, and their company expanded from there. 

“We were pioneers in the liquid fertilizer industry,” Evelyn said. Their business slogan read: “All you have to do is lift the hose.” BRANDT is now a global company that provides products to over 80 countries with manufacturing plants in Spain and Brazil. 

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Evelyn Brandt Thomas stands in the foreground with a branded-BRANDT truck in the background.
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Evelyn Brandt Thomas

Evelyn’s impact on agriculture reaches around the world. In BRANDT’s manufacturing plant in Cambe, Brazil, the technical formulation lab is named the “Evelyn Brandt Laboratory.” 

Construction is underway to create a research center, also named in her honor, in Evelyn and Glen’s hometown and the birthplace of their company: Pleasant Plains, Illinois. The Evelyn Brandt Thomas Ag Innovation Center will serve as BRANDT’s “hub for research, development, and collaboration while advancing the company's mission to provide solutions for farmers worldwide,” according to a Foodstuffs article

Agricultural education and the agriculture community mean so much to Evelyn. Growing up, it taught her the hard work and importance of farming. Through her business ventures, she has kept this idea close when innovating new technologies to improve farmer profits and productivity. 

“I encourage everyone to get some type of agricultural education because everything is connected to agriculture,” Evelyn said. “People need to eat, so we have to make sure we keep agriculture alive and well.” 

As for being a centenarian, who still goes to work regularly and is very involved, Evelyn says, “Keep the mind busy and the body busy.”  

And stay busy, she does. At last year’s NASCAR Xfinity race at Daytona, Evelyn was at the starting line to call out: “Drivers, start your engines!” BRANDT sponsors Justin Allgaier, a Springfield native NASCAR racer. 

What’s more, Evelyn owns a street-legal car duplicate to the one Justin drives in the races. “While I don’t have a license, because I am 100, we drive it for various functions and car shows.” 

Coming up on her 101st birthday this summer, Evelyn isn’t slowing down yet. Her passion for improving the agriculture industry and farmers’ operations continues through her philanthropic gifts and service to her community. She still lives by the advice her parents gave years ago: “To be honest; don't ever cheat anybody. To be kind; treat everybody like they are family — and have the love of God and country.”