Then several of Maryland's state senators learned this morning at the beginning of the session that Edward P. Thomas, the Senate minority leader, had died, they broke down on the Senate floor.

"I really can't even talk about it," said acting minority leader John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel). "He was just one hell of a man, that's all I can say right now."

The 54-year-old Thomas, who succumbed to cancer after eight operations in two years, was elected to four terms in the Senate from Frederick County and was one of the best-liked men in the General Assembly. A leading advocate for businesses, he was often instrumental in hammering out compromises between them and labor. He was gregarious and outgoing, a man who made friends quickly.

Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg, who swore Thomas in for his fourth term on Jan. 13 in a Frederick hospital, remembered Thomas insisting that a jacket be draped around his shoulders while he took the oath of office, even though he had tubes in both arms and was so weak he could barely sit up in bed.

"You hate to sound partisan at a time like this but one of the most remarkable things about Ed was that he was a Republican in a Democratic body who had the absolute respect of everyone," Steinberg said today.

Thomas had fought back from cancer last year, going through numerous operations while taking chemotherapy treatments daily. After missing the beginning of last year's session, he came back in February and had a better attendance record than most senators during the last two months of the session.

Thomas waged a vigorous reelection campaign and worked hard for other Republican candidates. He had just been elected minority leader in December when the cancer reappeared and he returned to the hospital for two more operations.

His colleagues said today they received notes from Thomas until two weeks ago. "He would send clippings from the paper and write, 'Watch out, the liberals are coming,' " said Sen. James C. Simpson (D-St. Mary's). "I think he was always planning in his mind that he would be back. He was a fighter."

Last spring, when his colleague, Sen. Edward T. Conroy, was in the hospital terminally ill with cancer, Thomas called him. "I told him to take the chemotherapy, even if it was painful," Thomas said shortly after Conroy died. "I told him he had to fight to live, never give up, keep on fighting until the end. You can't quit."

It was Thomas' close friend, Sen. Charles Smelser (D-Carroll) who summed him up best today. In a voice quavering with emotion, Smelser said, "Ed Thomas loved living more than any man I've ever known."

The entire Senate is expected to attend the funeral Thursday.