Harry Thomas Sr., a scrappy lawmaker who doled out punches, toys and love with the same hands and heart, was remembered last week as a D.C. Council member who was a man of passion for the ordinary folks. That passion, mourners recalled, at times reached across the District line and into Prince George's County.
Although D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and lawmakers from across the area praised Thomas, 77, who died Aug. 7 of a heart attack, the complete testimony to his three decades of service also was measured by all the cars with Maryland tags that were parked outside the District's Michigan Park Christian Church at his wake last Wednesday night and at his funeral the next day.
From Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), who released a poem in honor of Thomas, to former Maryland state senator Tommie Broadwater, who attended the memorial service, Thomas had many admirers in this county, which is home to many former D.C. residents.
"Harry's journey to the Eternal leaves a great void in our hearts," Curry said in a statement that was read during the funeral. "A civic-minded man, he was an integral part of the Washington metropolitan region. His friendly smile will be missed."
Broadwater recalled that "Harry didn't think in terms of it being a D.C.-Maryland type thing. He was a constituent's person who dealt with people's needs. When he would come to Prince George's County it was like, 'What did I need,' and that's how it was."
Thomas was known for his outreach to poor and working-class families in parts of his ward, which bordered Prince George's, as well as his work to address the complaints of middle-income residents about inadequate city services.
The D.C. Council attracted many former civil rights activists to its ranks, such as former chairman David A. Clarke and former members Hilda H.M. Mason and Frank Smith Jr. But Clarke died in 1997, and Mason and Smith lost their reelection bids last year to a new generation of lawmakers who push for tax cuts and fiscal responsibility with the same passion that their older colleagues pushed for fair housing and civil rights.
Tony Jackson, 40, of Bowie, an electrical engineer at Johns Hopkins University, said last week that he had many memories of growing up in the same Michigan Park neighborhood as the Thomas family.
"I grew up with Little Harry as a kid," Jackson said, referring to Harry Thomas Jr., who coaches softball at Bowie State University. "I always remember his father looking out for the neighborhood. He always looked out for the hood."
"It is people like Harry Thomas who motivated us to go the next step," Jackson said. "He always told us to be all that we can be. I look at all of the guys in our old neighborhood who are successful and doing well. We moved out to the suburbs because we needed more space but have our roots in the city."
Thomas was elected to the council in 1986, a few years after retiring from the federal government, where he had worked for 37 years at the Department of Interior. His wife, Romaine, a public school teacher, had long been active in the community and in the Democratic Party, but Thomas could not persuade her to run for the council. So he did it, beating three-term incumbent William R. Spaulding in the Democratic primary.
Thomas represented a section of Northeast Washington that borders some Prince George's County communities such as Mount Rainier and Hyattsville. He was a member of the Michigan Park Christian Church on South Dakota Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares into Maryland.
From D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and former mayor Marion Barry to hundreds of community activists from across the District, the pews of Michigan Park Christian were a political who's who of Washington and Prince George's. People from all walks of life came to pay their final respects to Thomas.
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."
Ray Sneed, president of the Firefighters Association of the District of Columbia, said, "Whenever there was an incident in Harry's ward, you'd have to be careful because he might beat the firetrucks there."
Sneed, who lives in Mitchellville, is a D.C. firefighter who became quite familiar with Thomas on his runs. "The neighbors depended on Harry so much, they often called Harry before they called 911."
Thomas's most infamous act as a public official was "bopping" 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 that 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 trash industry officials, Thomas changed his position 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.
Earlier this year, Thomas's former 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.
"People will always remember Harry Thomas as a soul brother who happened to be a politician. He bonded very much with the people," said former council member Smith, who added that it is time for a new generation of lawmakers to carry on.
"We know that the next generation has to make their own way," Smith said. "As much as you love them and prepare for the future, the young people are going to make their own way. A new generation of politicians has to be born."
One of the leaders in that generation is Mayor Williams, who battled Thomas on many issues but said he grew to love him. Williams was at the hospital shortly after Thomas died, and during Thomas's memorial service, he sat in the front row with the family for more than four hours.
"Harry was real. He disagreed with me on a lot of things, but he was a person who was up front and told me exactly what he thought," Williams said. "I could got to a community meeting with five people, and Harry would be at every one."
"What I came to admire about him was his total unequivocal dedication to constituent services, that is what he was about," Williams said. "My father died last February. Harry was part of a generation that literally built this country. We would not be here except for the battles that they fought."
Harry Thomas Jr. said his father had long been active in 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."
CAPTION: D.C. Council members react to a 1997 bailout plan. They are, from left, Carol Schwartz, Hilda H.M. Mason, Harry Thomas Sr. and Charlene Drew Jarvis.
CAPTION: At a 1996 meeting on schools are, from left, Kenneth Milner, Franklin Smith, Harry Thomas Sr. and Hilda H.M. Mason.