Former D.C. Council member Harry L. Thomas Sr. received a send-off yesterday befitting his life, as described by speaker after speaker at his funeral, large and lively.
About 1,000 people gathered at Michigan Park Christian Church, many spilling out onto the lawn outside the sanctuary, where they sang, laughed and embraced each other in memory of Thomas, 77, who died Saturday of a heart attack.
The service, which ran 3 1/2 hours, was both sacred ceremony and political pageant. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and the District's three former mayors, along with other elected and appointed officials, talked about Thomas the public servant. Thomas's children, Debra Truhart and Harry L. Thomas Jr., talked about Thomas the devoted dad. And outside the church in Northeast Washington, ordinary people who lived in Ward 5, which Thomas represented for 12 years, talked about Thomas the man who helped them with their problems.
"He was an inspiration to my family," said Nancy Walls, a single mother from Northeast Washington who came to the church with her two adult daughters, Lashawn and Sabrina. Walls said that when Sabrina was 14, Thomas put up the money for her to attend a camp for academic achievers.
"He was there when we needed him," Walls said. "He was like that."
Former mayor Walter Washington asked those in the audience who had been helped by Thomas to raise their hands. Dozens of hands flew up, along with a chorus of voices shouting, "Amen!" and "Yesss!"
Washington then made the audience crack up with laughter when he said: "As committed as Harry was, you couldn't mess with him. If you got in his way, he might deck the brother. . . . Then he would throw his arms around him and pick him up." A few years ago, Thomas, a former welterweight boxer, punched out a 27-year-old aide.
Yesterday's service was the second massive display of public mourning for Thomas. Wednesday night an estimated 1,000 people converged on the church for a memorial service that began at 4 p.m. and lasted nearly to midnight.
Former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly said that "the unbelievable outpouring of humanity" was a testament to the affection city officials and residents had for Thomas, who was elected to the council in 1986 and narrowly lost a bid for reelection last year.
Former mayor Marion Barry tickled the crowd when he declared, "Harry Thomas is one of the few people in this city who could get four mayors together."
Williams, who was elected mayor last year, praised Thomas and his generation of African Americans who lived through World War II, the Depression and overt discrimination and who sacrificed themselves for their families and their country. The mayor reiterated his proposal to name a public building after Thomas "as a fitting way to keep his name alive."
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) alluded to the old standard when she said, "Let's face it, D.C. was wild about Harry." And D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) recalled how an impatient Thomas, after listening to his colleagues debate an issue for two hours, piped up and demanded, "Madame Chairman, I call the question!"
John Hechinger, who was chairman of the council before home rule, praised Thomas's wife, Romaine. "She was the power behind the throne," he said.
Public officials who didn't attend in person sent letters of condolence to the family, including President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder.
Thomas's charcoal-colored casket was surrounded by elaborate floral arrangements, including one of red and white carnations that formed the number 5. His Mason brothers gathered around his coffin to offer prayers.
In addition to elected officials, the eclectic crowd included city employees, political campaign workers and residents of Ward 5 who spoke of Thomas's legendary track record for constituent service.
Naomi Cruso, leaning on crutches on the sidewalk outside the church, said Thomas was her neighbor as well as her council member. For 40 years, she lived within a block of Thomas and his family. If a neighbor was too sick to renew her auto tags or didn't get his tax bill because of a glitch in the city's computers, Thomas would have a staff member take care of it, Cruso said. "Whenever you needed something done, he would help you," Cruso said.
He even helped those who weren't exactly looking for his help. Thomas's adult children delighted the audience with stories about how he had fixed them up with their future spouses. He would embarrass his daughter by introducing her boyfriend as his "future son-and-law" long before the couple became engaged. He didn't bother to consult his son before hiring his girlfriend as his chief of staff.
"I said, 'You can't hire my girlfriend to be your chief of staff.' And he said, 'I just did it.' " The couple is now married and have a son named Harry Thomas III.
"My father had a way," Harry Thomas Jr. said, "the Harry Thomas way."
CAPTION: The coffin of former D.C. Council member Harry S. Thomas Sr. leaves the church after the service. Four current and former Washington mayors were present.
CAPTION: Thomas's wife, Romaine Thomas, stands outside Michigan Park Christian Church in Northeast Washington's Ward 5, whose residents her husband represented on the council.
CAPTION: Thomas's son, Harry Jr., holds his son, Harry III. Thomas's children recalled a father's devotion.