You could call Edward Thomas Jr. a spark plug in Spokane’s African-American community or an activist for the city as a whole.
Call Thomas – who passed away last week from cancer – the founding chairman of the Citizens Review Panel for Spokane police, a member of the Sports Entertainment Arts and Convention Advisory Board, a prolific writer of letters to the editor, a candidate for City Council, the campaign manager of one of the biggest upsets in the city’s mayoral politics, a serious racquetball player, or a man interested in an infinite variety of topics and fond of stylish hats.
Call him all of those things and more. But you wouldn’t want to call him Ed, at least not more than once.
“My name,” he once admonished after the unacceptable appellation appeared in a story, “is Edward. Thomas. Junior.”
To Thomas, a given name was an identity of which one should be proud, not to be shortened or nicked. Given that name some 77 years ago when born in New Orleans, he carried it proudly in the U.S. Air Force for 22 years, as he rose to the rank of senior master sergeant before retiring at Fairchild, and for more than three decades in his adopted hometown of Spokane.
“He didn’t want to be confused with anyone else,” said longtime friend Tony Anthony, who with Thomas helped form Spokane’s African American Forum in 1978.
For the 1980s and 1990s, the forum was a key component of the city’s small minority community, inviting speakers on a wide variety of topics to a monthly lunch and discussion session. It sponsored candidate forums, awarded college scholarships and allowed members to network. “What it did was pull a lot of African-American men out of the woodwork, so to speak, to see what’s going on,” Anthony said.
Sometimes, when they came out of the woodwork, Thomas would talk to them about doing things. He once talked Bob Hemphill into becoming a precinct committee officer for the local Democratic Party.
“He could organize almost anything,” Hemphill, owner of the Chicken-N-More restaurant, recalled last week. “He could get people to sway his way. He had his finger on almost everything.”
The forum lost steam and disbanded around 2000, but the African-American community could use such an organization again to get the information flowing, Hemphill said.
Thomas was, in the words of the Rev. Lonnie Mitchell, “a wonderful man with a lot of views and ideas.” Mitchell knew Thomas not from the congregation at the Bethel AME Church, but from working out at exercise facilities at Fairchild, where Thomas was a serious racquetball player.
In the early 1990s, he reached a racquetball tournament final against a retired officer. John Talbott recalls that he won first place, which was a turkey, and a lifelong friend in Thomas.
“He was a man of great character, very honorable, loyal to his friends,” Talbott said. “He believed that to get ahead in this world, you needed hard work.”
But he never forgot that people had helped him during his life and believed he had an obligation to help others down on their luck, Talbott added. In his car, Thomas kept an envelope with $10 bills, which he would sometimes hand to street people.
In 1997, when Talbott ran for mayor, he enlisted Thomas as campaign co-chairman. A vocal critic of city government, Talbott had two failed council campaigns on his resume when he entered a race with an establishment-backed incumbent mayor, a former mayor and a state legislator.
“He told me he would not in any way, shape or form use dirty politics,” Talbott said. In the bruising campaign, independent groups spent heavily in the fight over redevelopment of the River Park Square mall, owned by the same company that owns The Spokesman-Review. A last-gasp attack some downtown business interests launched against Talbott backfired, and he pulled out a win over incumbent Jack Geraghty.
Talbott appointed Thomas to SEACAB, which was in charge of the city’s sports and entertainment venues. He once suggested that Talbott and all future mayors be stripped of the perk of free parking and tickets to events at the Opera House, but the rest of the board wouldn’t go along. Thomas ran unsuccessfully for council, and applied for a pair of openings.
“He never quite made it,” Talbott said. “He campaigned on the issues and felt very strongly about a right way to do things.”
Thomas stayed active in community events and wrote regular letters to the editor of this newspaper. To a long list of friends, he would email unusual articles, photographs and websites – emails that could carry attachments so large as to make a computer gasp.
He was going strong until early August, when he was short of breath and his fiancee Catherine Emerson made him go to the emergency room. Doctors ordered tests, and the news was bad. Stage 4 lung cancer, which had spread throughout his body. He died at home less than three weeks later.
Edward Thomas Jr. is survived by Emerson, three sons and a daughter, seven grandchildren, a brother and three sisters – and the community he helped connect and inform. A memorial service is in the works but hasn’t yet been scheduled.