Obituary: Clarke M. Thomas / Longtime PG editorial writer and senior editor
Jan. 11, 1926 - Feb. 21, 2009
February 23, 2009 5:00 AM
Clarke Thomas in 1975.
Clarke M. Thomas
By Dan Majors Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Clarke M. Thomas, a senior editor and retired editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, died of congestive heart failure Saturday night at UPMC Presbyterian. He was 83.
A self-described "literary person," Mr. Thomas spent more than 30 years shaping the opinions expressed on the Post-Gazette's editorial pages in a manner that shined on the newspaper, its staff and the community.
"He was a prince of a man," said John Robinson Block, co-publisher and editor-in-chief of the Post-Gazette. "He was the kind of man who made me proud to work in the newspaper business. Clarke reflected the very, very best of our business.
"He had a wonderful ability to distill a complex problem or idea into a highly readable and instructive editorial."
His columns gave pause to those caught up in a moment's celebration or outrage. They looked back, they looked ahead, and they looked deep.
"Not every community has a Clarke Thomas, but every community needs one -- someone who knows its history, personality and character, who cares about what happens there and who dedicates his life to improving it," said David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Post-Gazette. "In person and in the pages of the Post-Gazette, Clarke Thomas performed a service for decades that was as selfless as it was indispensable. What a man, and what a loss."
His columns often gave voice and a spotlight to heroes or problems that might otherwise be overlooked. One effort would be spent recognizing the societal contribution of employers who hire ex-convicts. Another would gently scold readers for not appreciating the culture and resources our region offers.
Mr. Thomas would weave a quote from Scripture, a reference to Rudyard Kipling, a line of poetry, a phrase from the Constitution, and a bit of wisdom from an Idaho farmer into a readable, thought-provoking case for changing one's mind. He liked to present his reasoning in enumerated paces, ticking them off in successive paragraphs.
"Pittsburgh has one of the finest medical and hospital systems in the nation," one column started. "Why, then, is there such a disparity between the health of black and white Pittsburghers?"
Another began: "Many people in Pittsburgh feel they've been left out of its designation as 'the most livable city' -- especially minorities and women." Then, after several paragraphs of data supporting the disparity, he wrote, "As a congenital optimist myself, I dislike leaving the matter there. What's to be done?"
Mr. Thomas then dared to submit his suggestions.
His columns presented well-researched, well-documented and clearly rationalized arguments, yet they were conversational, flowing as naturally as a stream of consciousness, with a parenthetical aside that had occurred to him floated into the midst of the message.
They also were personal. He shared anecdotes of his family, such as celebrating birthdays with speeches and their tradition of sending Christmas letters in August.
He met the love of his life, Jean, at a restaurant in Hutchinson, Kan., on Feb. 25, 1951, where they learned that they each had earned an A from one of the toughest professors at the University of Kansas. He was immediately impressed.
"A month later," he wrote, "I gave Jean a book of poetry, thus starting a ritual of doing something special on the 25th of each month. ... [T]he evening is to be devoted to the romance of our lives together.
"It's no coincidence, then, that we became engaged on Feb. 25, 1952, and were married Aug. 25, 1952, in her Starkville, Miss., hometown."
He told of stories he had heard, things he had seen and memories that tugged at him. Decades after World War II, for example, he recalled the time when he was with his infantry division in Europe.
"Before long," he wrote, "I noticed that some of my fellow soldiers were going through the mess line three or four times and dumping their full mess kits directly into the refugees' containers. For me, ethically trained to be a straight arrow, that misuse of government supplies was a no-no. I desisted."
It was a moral lesson he passed on to others.
"Oh yes," he concluded. "That mess-kit decision of 61 years ago: In retrospect, I would have acted differently and 'misused' government property to the benefit of hapless people."
A passionate traveler, he recounted for readers with equal zeal his experiences from a 2004 trip to Croatia, a family reunion in Nebraska, the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, and a soup kitchen operated by the East End Cooperative Ministry. One column would tell of savoring the slow-cooked food of The Baltic Nations and the next might examine the power and popularity of Steelers Nation.
One venture, which he described as "a highlight of my newspaper life," was a June 1979 trip to see Pope John Paul II celebrate a Mass in the Holy Father's native Poland. One of 60 pilgrims in a delegation sponsored by the Diocese of Greensburg -- "I was the only Protestant in the group," he wrote -- he was led by a friend to a platform filled with clergy, directly behind the pontiff.
He was witnessing history, he said.
"Indeed, the outpouring of affection for the pope during a week I spent there with a group of pilgrims from southwestern Pennsylvania I now consider to have been a defining moment in the eventual collapse of communism just a decade later," he wrote.
But for all his travels, it was Pittsburgh -- and his beloved Highland Park home -- where Mr. Thomas did most of his exploring. There was no telling what civic forum, sporting event, show opening or public meeting would catch his interest. He could be found sitting by himself, taking notes at The Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh's annual State of Black Pittsburgh message, or applauding the athletes taking part in the NCAA women's tournament East Region games at Mellon Arena.
His examinations and ruminations on society ranged from a high-minded call for "a healing realization that gays and lesbians, quite as much as people of color, are children of God" to his wish that there was a universal "I'm sorry" signal that drivers could share with those they've offended -- thus, he suggested, decreasing incidents of road rage.
He would take a community complaint or criticism and turn it on its ear as a challenge and an opportunity. Where others might bemoan the separation in the city's neighborhoods as fractious, he celebrated the ethnicity in our patchwork quilt of cultures.
As for our aging community, he wrote, "If Allegheny County is passing through the elderly 'bulge' before others do, it's all the more reason to do things right as pathfinders for the rest."
The son of missionaries to Sierra Leone, Mr. Thomas was born Jan. 11, 1926, during his parents' leave in Kansas City, Kan. The family returned to West Africa, where Mr. Thomas was taught by his mother.
When he was 11, the family moved to Coffeyville, Kan., so he could attend a formal school. After two years of junior college, he enlisted in the Army, where he served as a private in the 97th Infantry Division, touring Germany and the Czech Republic toward the end of World War II. Later, he returned to earn a journalism degree at the University of Kansas.
His first job was as a reporter with the Hutchinson News Herald in Kansas. He also worked at the Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal and as an editorial writer at the Wichita Eagle and the Daily Oklahoman and Times, before being recruited to the Post-Gazette editorial staff in 1971 by then-editor Frank N. Hawkins.
"We always took great pride in the precision with which Post-Gazette editorials were written, and Clarke was a major part of that," Mr. Block said. "Over the decades, the Post-Gazette has had as classy an editorial page as any newspaper in America. He was a key part of that."
"Clarke was an editorial writer of the first degree," said Post-Gazette editorial page editor Tom Waseleski. "His opinions were based on interviews, checking the facts, and being a journalist. At the heart of all of his commentary, was reporting. He knew everyone in town, from the most accomplished professor to people struggling to have good schools in their neighborhoods. He was able to relate to all those Pittsburghers. He was the perfect mentor for editorial writers who came in after he did."
Mr. and Mrs. Thomas spent their Pittsburgh years living in a three-story, brick house in Highland Park. He was amused to note that it was used to film a murder scene in the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie "Sudden Death." It also served as a launching pad for the lives of their children and an arena for hours of story-telling and debate. As recently as a week before his death, he invited an array of guests to his home for the purpose of discussing Abraham Lincoln.
To celebrate his house's 100th birthday, Mr. Thomas wrote, he and his wife opened the doors to carpenters, plumbers, painters, electricians, landscape designers and the like. They hosted "a party for the craftsmen who have helped maintain and enhance it during our 36 years here."
He witnessed many changes from his view in Highland Park, some of which occurred in his own backyard.
"I remember 20 years ago attending a meeting of the Highland Park Community Club where the discussion was so dotted with anti-black code phrases that I walked out," he wrote. Years later, however, he noted "that Highland Park is making a virtue of racial diversity."
Mr. Thomas retired in 1991 but continued as a senior editor, writing a monthly column for the Midweek Perspectives pages of the Post-Gazette. He also took up teaching at the Institute of Politics and introduction to journalism at the University of Pittsburgh. He also was one of the founders of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
He was the author of five books, including "They Came to Pittsburgh," a 1983 collection of 35 Post-Gazette articles exploring the city's ethnicity; "Witness to the Fifties: The Pittsburgh Photographic Library, 1950-1953," a book of photographs and historic commentary; and "Front-Page Pittsburgh: Two Hundred Years of the Post-Gazette." He also wrote "A Patrician of Ideas," a biography of A.W. Schmidt, a member of the Mellon family, and "This Far by Faith," a history of the Community of Reconciliation.
Mr. Thomas was a member of several community and industry organizations and the recipient of numerous honors. He was a past president and life member of the National Conference of Editorial Writers.
He is survived by his wife; two sons, Geoffrey Thomas of Budapest, Hungary, and Hugh Thomas of Miami; a daughter, Post-Gazette city editor Lillian Thomas of Highland Park; two sisters, Harriet Walker and Evelyn Voris, both of Athens, Ga.; and six grandchildren.
Visitation will be 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at McCabe Funeral Home, 6214 Walnut St., Shadyside, and Thursday, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. in the library of First United Methodist Church, 5401 Centre Ave., where a memorial service will be held at 5 p.m.
The family suggests gifts be made to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Amnesty International or the Community of Reconciliation.