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July 23, 2010

Former state Rep. John Thomas dies at 86

BRAZIL — John J. Thomas, who served in the Indiana House of Representatives from 1967 to 1990, died Thursday in a Brazil health care facility. He was 86.

Thomas started a Brazil law firm in 1948 that would later include several family members, two of whom became state representatives, and another became the state’s first inspector general. The law firm also produced a state senator and U.S. congressman.

That list includes his brother Amos Thomas, a state representative from 2006 to 2008; his nephew, Andrew Thomas, state representative from 2002-2006. He is currently executive director of the Indiana Retired Teachers Association; nephew David Thomas, former Clay County prosecutor and current Indiana Inspector General; and Edward A. Pease, a former state senator from 1981-1992 and U.S. representative from January 1997 to January 2001. Pease is currently senior vice president of government relations for Rolls-Royce North America.

Each of those men called John Thomas a mentor and an inspiration for success.

“John was a mentor to me in so many ways — personally, professionally, politically, in [Boy] Scouts and church. He was a big part of my life,” Pease said, adding he first met Thomas while as a Boy Scout.

Pease was later recruited by Thomas after Pease graduated from law school at Indiana University.

In fact, Pease was among the last to visit with Thomas.

After learning he was seriously ill, Pease took a flight Wednesday from his Virginia office to Indianapolis and drove to Brazil. He first went to the Clay County Hospital, but was told Thomas had been moved back at his health care facility.

“He opened his eyes and you could tell he could perceive, but he really had a difficult time talking,” Pease said. “So I sat and talked to him for about one and half hours. I talked about all the things that he had done for me and brought him up to date about me,” Pease said.

“I think most men tend not to say things that they probably should say about how people are important to them and you need to find ways to do that. I am very grateful for that” time and visit, Pease said.

“John was a very community minded person and he was always looking for ways to help make the community better. One way was supporting people willing to help in the community as a volunteer,” Pease said.

“As part of the [Brazil] Rotary [Club], during many Fourth of July celebrations, John was out in the miserably hot weather working as a volunteer and encouraging others to do that. He set the example,” Pease said.

Pease volunteered during some of Thomas’s election campaigns for the Indiana House, a measure Pease said that sparked his own political career.

Likewise, says nephew Andrew Thomas.

“John was a great inspiration to me and my run for state representative,” Andrew said. At early age, Andrew said he and his brother, David Thomas, each served as pages on the Indiana House floor while their uncle served as state representative.

Andrew joined the Thomas law firm on June 8, 1987.

“When I came, I remember seeing a photograph of him [John Thomas] with President Ronald Reagan. In the photo, he was sitting at a table with Reagan. It was taken while Reagan was still president,” Andrew said.

“John taught me how to respond to clients in a timely manner. He always made a client feel welcome when they came through the door. I learned that from John,” Andrew said.

John Thomas served as Clay County prosecutor from 1950 to 1958. It was that experience Thomas later used to help his nephew, David Thomas, who was serving his third term as prosecutor when he was appointed Indiana’s first state inspector general in 2005.

“He was a good teacher to me. When John would try a case, it seemed like he could relate very well with the jury. Sometimes lawyers get too hung up on being academic. I always thought John had a persuasive personal touch when it came to arguing cases to juries.

“What I remember from training with him is to not get hung up excessively on the rules, but always remember that common sense is important as well,” David said.

David said he also remembers his uncle taking them to Indiana University football and basketball games. “He was like a second father to me,” David said.

Brother Amos Thomas joined the law firm in 1956.

“He was a very good mentor and still was up to his death in some things,” Amos said.

Amos recalls his brother may have been Indiana’s first “51st” state senator. The state constitution only allows 50 senators. In an election in the 1960s, because of a redistricting, Thomas was elected to represent Clay County, while another was elected to serve in the district that also include Vigo County. However, the state senate voted not to seat his brother.

“He later ran and served for 12 terms in the Indiana House,” Amos said.

“He and I never had a cross word with each other, all those years — about 50 years — that we served together in the law office. I was more the impulsive kind, while he was more laid back and would consider something overnight.”

“I think we, all of us in the office, had the same work ethic and wanted to make a difference to help people,” Amos said.

Amos added his brother was an avid traveler, once going on a world tour with his family in 1965 that included more than 30 countries.

Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com.

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