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'Chris Thomas touched us all'

Outpouring of emotion for TV/radio sports personality, who died Wednesday of cancer.

Published February 20, 2004

The tears and tributes flowed easily on area TV and radio stations Thursday, as fans commemorated the death of longtime area sportscaster Chris Thomas.

Mr. Thomas, born Christian Thomas Olrick, died at 10:45 p.m. Wednesday (Feb.18, 2004) at University Community Hospital in Tampa after a long battle with cancer. He was 55.

As news spread Thursday, the memorials began. On WDAE-AM 620, where he helmed a midmorning talk show for seven years, personalities there started a daylong on-air tribute at 10 a.m. (simulcast on sister station WFLA-AM 970 for an hour in the evening), taking calls from friends and fans who shared stories about the iconoclastic broadcaster.

"It was a bunch of mannish guys sitting around crying," said retired Bucs lineman Ian Beckles, who took over for Mr. Thomas on WDAE when illness forced him to leave the air Jan.5 and who spent hours on-air Thursday memorializing him. "Chris Thomas touched us all."

At WFLA-Ch.8, where Mr. Thomas served as lead sports anchor for 14 years until his departure in 2002, the station devoted a big part of its 6 p.m. newscast to the sportscaster - playing videoclips of his past reports as former colleagues struggled to keep their composure. It was a particularly pointed loss at WFLA, where Mr. Thomas' wife, Kathryn Bonfield, works as assistant news director.

"When I went to see him in the hospital, he was in a lot of pain, but he had on his smiley-face boxer shorts, he had his racing form next to his bed, and he had his radio show on, which he wasn't able to do anymore," said WFLA anchor Gayle Sierens, who remained loyal to Mr. Thomas after his departure from the station.

"I realized then he was very ill ... but I had faith he could recover from anything," Sierens added. "I guess God just needed a little more entertainment up there with him."

From the moment Mr. Thomas stopped broadcasting in January, rumors of his illness began to spread. Brad James, program director at WDAE, said the famously nonchalant broadcaster wanted to keep details of his illness private, asking colleagues not to discuss it on air or to visit him in the hospital.

His last public appearance, color commentary for the Outback Bowl in January, revealed the extent of his struggle, James said.

"It was very evident he was in a devastating battle. ... He had lost a lot of weight," James said, noting the station was receiving hundreds of e-mails and telephone calls from fans across the country Thursday.

"It's a radio term ... mass appeal," James said. "He literally contradicted every rule in the broadcast book and he appealed to everybody. The guy was a giant, and it's evident now."

Mr. Thomas came to the area in 1988 from WBAL-TV Baltimore, earning a reputation on WFLA as a sharp-witted sportscaster, always willing to speak his mind.

Forget about Raymond James Stadium; on his shows, the Buccaneers stadium was the Community Investment Tax Stadium, or CITS. And woe to any sportscaster who dared to cheerlead hometown teams too much.

"What's this "We won'? I hear sportscasters say that all the time," he told the St. Petersburg Times during an interview in 2000. "They didn't win anything."

"I learned from him that you can't BS the audience," said WFLA sports anchor J.P. Peterson, who cried while remembering Mr. Thomas' kind words after Peterson replaced him as lead sports anchor. "He never treated me as a threat. ... He was unbelievably gracious. If there's one legacy (he has), it's teaching sportscasters to have the courage to stand up to (the sports establishment)."

Mr. Thomas started his broadcast career in 1969, serving as a sports reporter at a South Carolina radio station while finishing his studies at the University of South Carolina, where he earned a broadcast journalism degree in 1970. Later, he moved to a sports anchoring job in Salisbury, Md., before heading to WBAL-TV.

On local radio, he appeared on WFLA-AM in 1989 before settling into a show on WDAE in 1997. A fan of horse racing and an owner of horses, he won the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's 1989 Eclipse Award for his reporting on Triple Crown winner Secretariat, who died that year.

Things got tougher at WFLA-TV in 2000, when the station moved to eliminate sports reports in its 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. newscasts. In 2002, Mr. Thomas made headlines over an arrest for driving under the influence; years ago, he had admitted to having a past drinking problem.

A few months after the arrest, WFLA-TV fired him, citing his salary costs as a factor.

But friends and fans preferred to remember the good times Thursday - Sierens chuckled remembering the day Mr. Thomas nearly forgot his false teeth just before a broadcast - saluting the crusty sportscaster with a big heart who had touched so many.

"He told me the only selfish reason he wanted to be alive on Christmas Day was to see his (7-year-old daughter) Kaitlyn opening her presents," said WFLA anchor Tedd Webb, who co-hosted a show on WFLA with Mr. Thomas in the early '90s. "Tampa Bay lost a hell of an entertainer, but a lot of us lost a very dear friend."

Along with his wife and young daughter of Tampa, survivors include an adult daughter, Shawna Olrick of Atlanta; an adult son, Jeffrey Olrick of Charlottesville, Va.; father and stepmother Christian and Joan Olrick Sr. of Venice; two sisters, Joy Ann Olrick of Elmwood Park, N.J., and Wendy Smith of Hackettstown, N.J., and a grandson.

The family suggests memorial contributions in lieu of flowers to the American Cancer Society.

Visitation is 1-4 p.m. Sunday at Blount Curry & Roel Funeral Home, 605 S MacDill Ave., Tampa. A funeral mass open to the public is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 509 Florida Ave., Tampa, followed by a private graveside service for the family.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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