James Thomas, 69, first black Baltimore fire officer

July 05, 2000|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

James Thomas, the first African-American officer in the Baltimore Fire Department, died of a heart attack Wednesday at his Catonsville home. He was 69.

Mr. Thomas joined the department in 1956 and soon afterward received honors for rescuing a woman from a fire. His promotion to lieutenant in November 1962 was celebrated in the African-American community.

"This should lay to rest any thought of discrimination in the department," said James J. Lacy Jr., president of the city fire board, at the time.

FOR THE RECORD - James Thomas: An obituary for James Thomas published July 5 omitted a sister, Julia Harvey of Fallston, from the list of survivors.
The Sun regrets the error.

Mr. Thomas joined the fire prevention bureau of the department in 1972, inspecting buildings to determine whether they were up to code. He retired from the department in June 1992.

Born in Bradley County, S.C., Mr. Thomas and his family moved to East Baltimore when he was a child. He graduated from Carver High School in 1948.

He worked for Bethlehem Steel before being drafted into the Army in 1952. He was stationed in Germany during the Korean War and was discharged with the rank of corporal.

After his service in the armed forces, Mr. Thomas returned to Baltimore and Bethlehem Steel before joining the Fire Department.

He married the former Gwendolyn Pollack in 1952. The marriage ended in divorce. He later married Peggy Guntharp, who died in 1982.

When his children were young, Mr. Thomas was a coach for the Forest Park Little League.

"He always looked at the big picture, not little petty things," said his son Brian Thomas of Baltimore. "Everybody was somebody to him."

Mr. Thomas was known for his pleasant demeanor and leadership skills.

"He had an ever-smiling personality," said friend and former co-worker Henry Burris of Baltimore. "He encouraged others to become officers. I became a lieutenant with his encouragement."

Brian Thomas attributed his father's success in F Department to his personality.

"It wasn't so much that he was the smartest firefighter in 1962," said Brian Thomas. "I think it was ordained ... because he was blessed with a great temperament and spirit."

Mr. Thomas was a member of Corinthian Lodge No. 62 and the Vulcan Blazers, an organization for black fire department personnel.

Mr. Thomas met his third wife, the former Maureen Johnson, in 1979 when she was working nights at the Vulcan Blazers' club as a barmaid.

The couple married in 1984 and lived in Beechfield for more than 13 years before moving to Catonsville two years ago.

Mr. Thomas was an avid gardener and bird watcher, who changed the water in the birdbath in his back yard every day.

"The back looked like something from heaven," Mrs. Thomas said. "Every day he would stay in his garden and make sure first thing in the morning that the birds were fed."

He grew a variety of fruits and vegetables, including squash, peppers, collard greens, watermelon, tomatoes and cucumbers. The Thomases would give the produce to friends and family.

Mr. Thomas also loved to grill and his cookouts - featuring his signature spare ribs - sometimes drew as many as 150 guests.

A service will be held at 11 a.m. today at Morningstar Baptist Church in Catonsville.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Thomas is survived by another son, Troy Thomas of Baltimore; two daughters, Rochelle Bolden and Darlene Thomas of Baltimore; two stepsons, Kenneth Guntharp and William Jackson of Baltimore; three stepdaughters, Sharon Moats, Adrian Thomas and La'Shawnda Peoples of Baltimore; two brothers, George and Curtis Thomas of Baltimore; nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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