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Family's bad fortunes propelled Thomas to better life

July 07, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

The Rev. Jim Mayo, who for the past 11 years has been parish priest, thinks some of the church's most important community work has been lost with the school, and in speaking on the subject he echoes the phrases Mr. Thomas has used in many of his writings and speeches.

"The Marine philosophy pays off, and that's what the nuns used," he said. "You tell a kid he's smart, and it works. You tell them you can achieve anything you want, within reason, and it works. . . . And I think that what's wrong with our society today. We want to throw everybody a fish instead of teaching them to fish."

Tales of rock-hard discipline and the skyrocketing achievement that followed for Mr. Thomas don't mean that he hasn't had moments of mischief, and even doubt, along the way.

In recent days many of his oldest friends have laughed when they've heard him described as a humorless superachiever who never had time for anything but serious pursuits.

"We were typical black boys going to school and playing ball, and no one said to each other at age 9 or 10, 'You show promise,' " Mr. Allen said with a laugh.

"Sometimes we'd raise our hands to go to the bathroom, then sneak out of the school. You could hop the fence, get a snowball at Miss Nora's place on East Broad and be back in your seat before the nuns were worrying about where you were. We were average, mischievous kids growing up in the South. But guess what? We all went on to high school and college, and most of us did quite well."

Mr. Thomas briefly took up the call to the priesthood, spending his last two years of high school at Minor Seminary near Savannah, then enrolling in the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Missouri after graduation.

But the call didn't hold.

Sister Virgilius said she always suspected that he'd only done it to please his grandfather, and his mother confirmed as much when she said his grandfather found him crying in his room during one of his weekends home. He confessed then that he wanted to quit the seminary.

Mr. Thomas said in a 1987 interview with the Atlantic magazine that it also didn't help his zeal when, just after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he overheard a white seminarian say, "Good, I hope the son of a bitch dies."

So, Mr. Thomas veered to another course, entering Holy Cross University and later earning a law degree from Yale. From there it was off to a brief stint in commercial law followed by public service jobs, first in Missouri and then in Washington. Last year he was appointed to the bench, filling the post vacated by Judge Robert H. Bork on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Along the way, though he has retained the lessons of the nuns, he has stopped to wiggle his toes in the waters of agnosticism, he told Savannah magazine last year. And even when he rediscovered his faith, he became an Episcopalian. His friends say that is probably a result of his 1984 divorce from his first wife, Kathy, which would have barred him from Catholic Communion. He remarried in 1987, to Virginia Lamp, and retained custody of the son from his first marriage, 18-year-old Jamal Adeen Thomas.

For those who wonder how Mr. Thomas ended up as a conservative Republican, while most of his friends, such as state Senator Allen, have ended up as Democrats, Mr. Allen offered this: "Clarence is not an anomaly. Clarence is a product of the environment out of which he came. He represents those kinds of views on hard work, discipline and respect that we got in school."

Mr. Allen said he would testify on Mr. Thomas' behalf at the confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate.

He also said that Mr. Thomas may well surprise those who think they have his opinions pegged on the basis of one or two lines drawn from speeches and past articles, and he predicted that even President Bush may be in for a few surprises.

As for Clarence Thomas himself, he has said little since his nomination. His only recent public words of note came when Mr. Bush announced his nomination. Standing at the president's side, he spoke first of his family and of "the nuns" who had taught him that he could be whatever he wanted. Mr. Thomas choked up as he made the statement, and Mr. Allen said he understood exactly what was going through his friend's mind.

"He thought about those days on the bus," Mr. Allen said. "He thought about those cold sandwiches and potato chips at lunch. And he thought about pitching pennies on the sidewalk. And when he said, 'the nuns,' he meant Thaddeus, he meant Virgilius. I think all of that welled up in him."

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