Technology Trailblazer Richard E. Thomas Sr.

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 4, 2007

Richard E. Thomas Sr., 81, former president of Comsat Radiation Systems Inc., died July 4 at his home in Annandale.

Mr. Thomas, who was considered a trailblazer in the satellite communication industry, served as president of Comsat RSI from 1994 to 1997.

From 1978 to 1994, he was chairman of the board, president and chief executive of Radiation Systems Inc., a communications systems manufacturer that made antenna systems and parts for, among other things, radar, air traffic control, military and satellite communications systems. The company was purchased by satellite communications giant Comsat Corp. in 1994.

Mr. Thomas spent decades building up RSI, broadening its prospects and defending it against competitors and corporate raiders. He even fended off Pentagon officers who wanted to take over some of the technology that Radiation Systems had developed, The Washington Post reported in 1990.

When Comsat Corp. purchased Radiation Systems, the firm under Thomas's leadership had $122 million in revenue and one of the best reputations in the competitive world of communications technology. At the time of the acquisition, RSI had 975 employees, most of whom worked in Northern Virginia and the remainder at subsidiaries in Texas, Illinois, Florida, New Jersey, Georgia and the United Kingdom. Today, antennas from RSI can be found in many countries.

Mr. Thomas was known as a tough leader with uncompromising ethics. He could be impatient with poor performance, The Post reported in1990:

"In one breath, he says he doesn't want to be thought of as a boss who kicks and screams a lot, but he acknowledges in the next breath that he occasionally raises a fuss -- as he did recently when he told his staff the way they should treat customers.

"Two signs posted over Dick Thomas's desk may reveal some of his feelings about corporate leadership," the story says. "One says, 'Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.' The other says, 'He who overlooks one fault invites another.' "

Mr. Thomas was born in Pittsburgh and was training to be a pilot in the Army Air Forces when World War II ended. In the military, he developed a love for communications and radar technology.

While working at Union Switch and Signal in Pittsburgh during the day, he studied engineering at the University of Pittsburgh in the evening. But with a young family, he never had the time to complete a degree. In 1954, he moved his family to Baltimore, where he was employed at Washington Aluminum Co. as a mid-level manager.

Richard E. Thomas Jr. recalled going to work with his father on Saturdays and watching him stop to help employees as he walked through the aluminum company. "There was nothing he couldn't do. He learned every single element, every phase of the business," Thomas said.

Mr. Thomas left Washington Aluminum Co. as vice president and general manager of the technical products division.

In 1965, he was hired as vice president of Radiation Systems Inc., which was struggling financially. He created the company's antenna manufacturing division.

In 1991, Mr. Thomas was voted satellite executive of the year by VIA Satellite magazine.

In addition to his son of Falls Church, survivors include his wife of 59 years, Marie Catherine Thomas of Annandale; children, Lawrence J. Thomas and William A. Thomas, both of Leesburg, Kevin J. Thomas of Haymarket, Elaine Williams of Fairfax Station and Marie C. Cann of Fairfax County; a brother; a sister; 20 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. A daughter, Theresa Cann, died in 1996.

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