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Ward 5 residents, city say farewell to Harry Thomas

(Published August 23, 1999)

By LUTISHIA PHILLIPS

Staff Writer

George Boyd remembers Harry Thomas joking with him once when he was sick.

Boyd, chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5B and often a Thomas antagonist on community issues, recalls the former longtime Ward 5 councilman "cheering" him by saying, "You know, Iíve been thinking about what good things I could say at your funeral."

"I was thinking the same thing about you," Boyd said he responded.

Boyd and many other ANC commissioners and civic activists with whom Thomas sparred verbally in his 10 years as one of the cityís first elected ANC members and 12 years on D.C. City Council all seem to agree on one thing about the 77-year-old politician who died Aug. 7 after a heart attack: He was a servant of the people.

"He was a peopleís person."

"He was a helper."

Thatís how many friends and supporters also described Thomas, who was buried Aug. 12 at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Md., after what some observers described as a tremendous outpouring of affection for Thomas over two days of memorial services at Michigan Park Christian Church that far exceeded the number of lives many imagined Thomasís years of public service had so touched.

Thomas was known simply as "Harry" to many in the community, even those he had never met. And it was common for Ward 5 residents to be warmly embraced by their longtime councilman upon their first meeting. Thomas sometimes referred to Ward 5 residents as "family."

Boyd said Thomas was particularly known for helping the less fortunate.

"Iím sure weíve all got a personal story about Harry," echoed Elder Joy Lynn Bell through loudspeakers set up outside the funeral to accommodate the overflow crowd.

"He was my buddy," said Herman Dudley shuffling through a collection of pictures of Harry. Dudley, who is the same age as Thomas, recalls being in the same youth program with him. "It was the Roosevelt Boys Club and we got paid $1 a day," Dudley recalled.

Family friend Peggy Logan speaks warmly of Harryís willingness to "just give without asking."

Logan said Thomasís wife, Romaine, "told me once that some neighbors had complained that the Department of Public Works had not cleared the snow away from their streets and Harry went right over to help shovel it himself."

One lady in a blue dress at the funeral said she had just returned from a vacation at Marthaís Vineyard when she heard the news that Thomas had died suddenly.

"Iíve known him most of my life," she said.

"The people like Harry because you could reach out and touch him," said ANC 5A commissioner Mary Baird Currie. "I think he understood his job to be that of a legislator for the people and their needs."

The special kinds of assistance Thomas gave his constituents ran the gamut of what old-line politicians have always been known to provide Ė things like job assistance, support for neighborhood anti-crime and anti-drug projects, recreational programs, turkey baskets at Thanksgiving, toys and clothing for children at Christmas.

William H. Taft said Harry promised to help him on a project organizing young people to plant trees and flowers around the city. Taft said Thomas was going to work on the project if he was re-elected.

Through most of his three terms as a councilman, Thomas served as chairman of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment. He also served two terms as chairman of the Ward Five Democrats and was elected as a delegate to the D.C. Statehood Constitution Con-vention.

Former mayors Marion Barry and Walter Washington spoke at Thomasís funeral about fun times they had with Thomas.

"He brought a lobster to my office one time and when I asked him where he got it, he said, ĎDonít worry about it ó just eat it,í" Barry said, filling the crowd with laughter.

Washington, recalling that Thomas had been an amateur boxer, said that "if you were ever in trouble, Harry would be the first to deck a brother." Washington also remembered a time when Thomas said that he just wanted people to say he was out there helping them.

Barry joked that Thomas was one of the few people who could get all four of the cityís elected mayors together Ė noting the attendance of Mayor Anthony A. Williams and former mayors Washing-ton, Sharon Pratt Kelly and himself at the funeral. Barry also described Thomas as a "folksy" person.

"Heís probably having a chat with God right now," he said.

Kelly called Thomas "the embodiment of goodness."

"When I was in a torrid of problems, heíd always ask how I was and how the family was," she said.

Mayor Williams spoke of Thomasís humility and "good neighbor" attitude. The mayor suggested naming a city building in Thomasís honor.

Some have said Thomas split his life between helping people and the government.

"He wasnít conceited about his work," said ANC 1B commissioner and activist Lawrence Guyot. "I believe he had an equal love of politics and people."

Among his many affiliations, Thomas was a lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and served on the board of the Neighborhood Planning Organization. Thomas spent 37 years as a federal employee and served in the U.S. Army and with the Naval Reserve. In addition to his wife, who is principal of Ketcham Elementary School in Southeast Washington, Thomas is survived by a son, Harry L. Thomas Jr., and a daughter, Debra Thomas Truhart.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator