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His humility weathered changing politics


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000

The tag on the black hearse was a little out of date -- 1975. It read simply, "Senator."

But it spoke volumes about Sen. Pat Thomas, the Quincy Democrat whose body had just been lovingly placed inside the hearse outside the First Presbyterian Church of Quincy.

Charlie McClellan, the senator's aide and, by happenstance, the local funeral director, put the tag on the hearse so it would get some use.

"Pat never would use it on his car, McClelland said. "He thought he should pay for his tag and get one just like everyone else did."

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The people who drove on Pat Thomas Parkway past the Pat Thomas Law Enforcement Academy to get to his funeral went to celebrate the life of a politician who was born and died in the same north Florida town.

Rhea Chiles, widow of the late governor, sat alone near the front of the church. Gov. Jeb Bush and former Govs. Reubin Askew and Wayne Mixson joined Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Comptroller Bob Milligan and dozens of current and former legislators in the small crowded church. An overflow crowd watched a television screen in a church annex.

The crowd, including many of the county's black citizens, stood together to sing The Battle Hymn of the Republic -- a piece that would never have been played at the funeral of a Southern senator in 1972, when Thomas decided to run for the Legislature.

His political career weathered the times that changed across the nearly 30 years he served.

"A life well lived," noted John Awad, a longtime state bureaucrat and friend.

Former House Speaker James Harold Thompson, who called Thomas his mentor, recalled all the lessons he learned as he and Thomas drove back and forth from their homes in Quincy to Tallahassee.

"Pat wanted to honor his hard-working parents and the family he and Mary Ann had started," Thompson recalled. "And he wanted to build security for himself and his family."

His home town insurance business and his legislative career prospered honestly in a government arena that is sometimes caught in scandal, Thompson said.

Thomas had a basic understanding of humanity and remained humble.

Once, when faced with an angry crowd during a time of spiraling inflation, Thomas told about the peanut vendor in his home town, Thompson recalled.

John, the blind peanut salesman outside of the drugstore, got a dime from Thomas every morning. Thomas never took the peanuts, just gave John a dime. But one morning, John chastised Thomas, "Hey Mr. Pat, the peanuts done gone up to 15 cents."

The story allowed the two legislators to escape the angry crowd with ease, Thompson said.

Thomas' humility remained so great he wouldn't send out a post-session newsletter boasting of his achievements, recalled Marvin Arrington, a lobbyist and son of the late Sen. C. Fred Arrington of Quincy, who had been Thomas' mentor.

When faced with demands from fellow Democrats who wanted him to oppose Bush's education plan, Thomas voted with the Republican governor, Arrington recalled.

"The people of my district need me to have a Republican governor on my side rather than a token vote on the losing side," said Arrington as he recalled Thomas explaining the 1999 vote.

"And if you don't think that's good politics, ask the people in Chattahoochee who just got their prison back," Arrington noted.

Late Friday they lowered Thomas' body into a grave, but they did not bury Pat Thomas, said the Rev. Ralph McCaskill.

"His spirit, his ideal, and his enthusiasm are all things that cannot be buried," McCaskill said.

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