Harry Thomas Sr. was a kindly curmudgeon whose strong opinions caused him to have fallings out from time to time with his D.C. Council colleagues, his aides and even his beloved constituents in Ward 5.
But no one stayed on the outs with Thomas for long. He would greet adversaries with a wide smile, a back-slap or a hug as if nary a cross word had passed between them. Voters in Ward 5 continued to show affection for Thomas, even as they rejected him for a fourth term in last year's election.
Thomas, 77, who during his three terms on the council built a reputation as the consummate constituent servant, died Saturday of a heart attack. Today family and friends will gather to remember him at funeral services.
"I loved Harry Thomas, genuinely," said former mayor Marion Barry. "He was just a down-to-earth, very principled, very loyal kind of person."
Barry recalled how he used to send aides to lobby council members on a particular issue coming before the body. "Harry would say, 'Tell the mayor I'm with him on this.' And I didn't have to worry about it."
Former at-large council member Hilda H.M. Mason, who served two decades on the council representing the Statehood Party, also was forced into retirement last year by District voters. She remembered Thomas as a fellow member of the old-line liberal bloc, which also included former Ward 1 council member Frank Smith Jr. and the late Chairman David A. Clarke. The group almost always voted to support initiatives aiding the poor, labor and the elderly.
"He really cared about people. He worked hard to help them have a good life," Mason said, adding that Thomas's voting record was "very important to the struggle."
"He did everything that he could to make life good for all people," she said.
Thomas was elected to the council in 1986, a few years after retiring from the federal government, where he had worked for 37 years. His wife, Romaine, had long been active in the community and in the Democratic Party, but Thomas could not convince her to run for the council. So he did it, beating three-term incumbent William R. Spaulding in the Democratic primary.
The D.C. Council, which had attracted many former civil rights activists to its ranks, began to change in 1990 with the election of younger men and women, who argued for less taxes, more police officers and better schools.
Thomas, a former welterweight boxer, would sometimes trade verbal jabs over issues with the council's so-called Young Turks.
"We had kind of a great relationship," said council member Harold Brazil (D-At-Large). "We would fuss and fight over issues, and we would work on issues together. As soon as it was over, we would become friends again, asking about each other's families, joking with each other."
Brazil said he last saw Thomas about a month ago, when his former colleague invited him to a groundbreaking for a new wing for his church, Michigan Park Christian Church.
"He was real upbeat," Brazil recalled. "We needed some more chairs, and he was hustling to get them and put them out. He was just being Harry--a real hands-on kind of guy."
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) said Thomas "brought an unequaled grass-roots philosophy to the council. His mantra was that he just wanted to help someone.
"I will personally miss the fire and charm of a man who understood the plight of those less fortunate in our community," she said.
Thomas was known for his outreach to poor and working-class families in parts of his ward, as well as his work to help middle-income residents address their complaints about inadequate city services.
"Whenever there was an incident in Harry's ward, you'd have to be careful because he might beat the fire trucks there," said Ray Sneed, president of the Firefighters Association of the District of Columbia. "The neighbors depended on Harry so much until they often called Harry before they called 911."
Thomas's most infamous act as a public official was decking an aide who showed up late for a constituent Christmas party. Thomas was 72 at the time; the aide was 27. The two exchanged words and then, Thomas told a reporter, "I bopped him."
In the end, Thomas's reputation as a "people's politician" worked against him when some residents of his ward perceived he was siding with big business. Last year, Thomas sponsored legislation that would have made it tougher for solid waste businesses to be established in residential neighborhoods. But when it became apparent that the legislation would hurt a politically connected businessman, Thomas changed his tune and argued against the tougher regulations. Residents who once saw Thomas as their champion accused him of selling out and confronted him at several emotional demonstrations last summer.
John Frye, a former Ward 5 advisory neighborhood commissioner, was one of Thomas's most vocal critics on the trash issue. Frye and Thomas had stopped speaking to each other, but Frye planned to be in the front row at Thomas's memorial service. "Through all of our battles, Harry Thomas was like a father to me," Frye said. "I think he wanted to be with the community on the trash issue, but the monsters of the trash industry used Harry to push their issues across."
Earlier this year, Thomas's old colleagues passed legislation designating a street in Ward 5 as Harry Thomas Way. The street, between Eckington Place and Third Street NE, had been private property and is in the process of being turned over to the city as a public thoroughfare.
Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), who defeated Thomas by fewer than 500 votes in last year's primary, said the two of them had been working on repairing the rift in the ward. They were planning a joint event to be held later this month. "I am extremely saddened by Harry's passing; we had come together and had several meetings about projects that we could do together," Orange said. He added that Thomas's son had pledged to continue his father's work to pull the ward back together.
Harry Thomas Jr. said his father had long been active in with the Woodridge Boys and Girls Club. The firefighter who responded to the emergency call last weekend when Thomas was stricken had grown up in Woodridge and was now active as a coach at the club. The younger Thomas said that as he watched the firefighter administer CPR to his father: "It kind of like summed up my father's whole life.
"He was always helping other people, and now some of those people are reaching back to be the very last hands that helped him."
Funeral Services for Harry L. Thomas Sr. will be at 11:00 a.m. today at Michigan Park Christian Church, 1600 Taylor St. NE. Internment will be at Fort Lincoln Cemetery, followed by a repast at the church.
CAPTION: Harry Thomas Sr. had represented Ward 5 on the D.C. Council and was known for his outreach to the less fortunate.
CAPTION: From right, council members Hilda H.M. Mason and Harry Thomas Sr., Superintendent Franklin Smith and School Administrator Kenneth Milner listen as the D.C. control board discusses school-related issues.
CAPTION: Harry Thomas, with megaphone, leads District residents in a rally in front of the White House. They had gathered to urge President Clinton to veto a Congressional bill against D.C. home rule.