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Monday, February 23, 2009

Clarke M. Thomas: A reminiscence

Posted By on Mon, Feb 23, 2009 at 6:18 AM

This space marks the passing of Clarke Thomas, the Post-Gazette senior editor and editorial writer who died this weekend. His voice was considered, considerate, and always worth listening to: steeped in a love for Pittsburgh, but never afraid to call upon us to be better than we were. 

He was also one of the most generous and genuine souls I've ever known.

I knew Clarke Thomas long before I ever met him. I'd interviewed him for a review of his book Front Page Pittsburgh, a history of the Post-Gazette -- but more than that, I'd been reading his op-ed pieces for years.

I doubt anyone has ever been on the right side of more issues than Clarke Thomas. He was a thoughtful progressive on as many issues as you can name -- the environment, labor questions, race, justice for the glbt community.

And he wrote without rancor, wrote with an optimistic belief that once we sorted ourselves out, we'd find a solution to the most vexing problems. He was the liberal elder statesman of Pittsburgh journalism. His was an informed, open and conversational voice that -- thanks to ideological scolds like me on both sides of the debate -- is almost lost now. 

But despite my long appreciation for his work, I didn't really meet Thomas until a few months back, through one of those only-in-Pittsburgh coincidences.

Years ago I bought a book, titled The Christian as Journalist, off the discount table at a used-book place. It was sort of an inside joke between me and myself: I figured a book about the intersection of Christianity and a cynical trade like journalism would have wide margins and lots of empty pages. As often happens when I make such purchases, I brought the book home, tucked it away on a shelf, and never looked at it. Then, a few months ago, I pulled it down on a whim and flipped through it. Inside was something I hadn't noticed before -- a note, written on the stationery of an Oklahoma newspaper, from a managing editor recommending the book to "Clarke T." 

The book had, of course, belonged to Thomas years ago. I got in touch with him, and Thomas surmised that his wife had probably given it to some charity in hopes of reining in the epic sprawl of his reading material. I'm that sort of husband myself, and we both agreed it would be amusing for the book to suddenly reappear on a coffee table in his home -- years after the spouse thought she'd gotten rid of it.

About all I can tell you of our subsequent encounters is that Thomas was every bit as gentle and affable in person as he was in print. That can be a rare thing in journalism. And he was indeed a practicing Christian -- at age 83, he sang in his church choir -- but with an open, tolerant approach to his faith and his fellow person. That can be a rare thing in religion too. 

Like I say, I never read The Christian as Journalist. But having known Clarke even a little bit, I probably no longer need to. 

And he never stopped working. Just a few weeks ago, I interviewed Clarke and his wife Jean for a story I'm working on ... and on the table between us was a manilla file filled with clippings about a column he was writing. It was going to be about the impact Barack Obama's election would have on our perception of African-American families.

I wish we'd gotten to read it.

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