Robert M. Thomas

[Age 86] The longtime attorney and fair-housing advocate strongly identified with the underdog.

May 19, 2007|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,sun reporter

Robert Mason Thomas Sr., a retired attorney and fair-housing advocate who briefly headed the Baltimore Museum of Art board, died of a stroke Tuesday at University of Maryland Medical Center. The Phoenix resident was 86.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Calvert Street, he was a 1938 graduate of Gilman School, where he played football and lacrosse. Editor of the school's yearbook and active in its debate club, he received the school's top award for scholarship and leadership.

He received a Naval Academy commission, but after his plebe summer, he was found to be colorblind and was disqualified from service. He went on to earn a political science degree from Princeton University and to play lacrosse on the school's 1942 national championship team.

Mr. Thomas recalled being on a train from Baltimore to Princeton when he heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Soon after graduation, he enlisted in military service.

"The Navy happily accepted him this time around, with apparently no questions asked about colorblindness," said his son, Robert M. Thomas Jr. of Boston.

After training exercises in the North Atlantic, he became a navigator aboard the destroyer USS Conway and participated in the island-hopping campaigns of the Philippines and South Pacific. He also patrolled the coasts of Vietnam and China.

After the war, he earned a degree from Harvard Law School and did additional study at Oxford University in England.

In the late 1940s, he began to practice law in downtown Baltimore. He was briefly a litigator with the Maryland attorney general's office and then joined the firm of Armstrong, Machen and Eney.

"He never took himself seriously and had a lovely chuckle when he laughed," said Arthur W. Machen Jr., a friend of many years. "He had a feeling for people and was a person of depth."

Mr. Thomas then began a lengthy association with Venable, Baetjer and Howard, where he was a partner and worked in estates and trusts. He retired about a decade ago but kept his Hopkins Plaza office, which he visited daily until last week.

"For someone with such a strong intellect and long list of achievements, he was totally self-effacing and humble, just a remarkably nonjudgmental, sweet man," his son said. "He had a calming effect on people, like you were in the presence of someone full of forgiveness and wisdom."

"He was a peacemaker in so many ways," his son added. "He had a strong identification with the underdog - he felt that both viscerally as well as intellectually. He would always wonder if there weren't some other, more generous or more innocent, interpretation of events."

Family members said that Mr. Thomas drew inspiration from his middle name - an ancestor, George Mason, wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Mr. Thomas, they said, was an ardent believer in the rights and freedoms of the powerless against the powerful.

"He was absolutely trustworthy," said Charles B. Reeves Jr., another friend. "You knew that everything he said was right."

Mr. Thomas was active for many years in the vestry of Sherwood Episcopal Church in Cockeysville.

A trustee of the Baltimore Museum of Art from 1976 to 1982, he was board chairman from 1982 to 1984.

He was active in the formation of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association and worked on fair-housing issues in Baltimore County in the 1960s and supported open-occupancy laws.

A memorial service is being planned for June 2.

In addition to his son, survivors include his wife of 56 years, the former Helen Whitridge Bruce; two daughters, Helen W. Thomas of Taneytown and Elizabeth T. Maza of Washington Crossing, Pa.; two brothers, Richard Thomas and Andrew Thomas, both of Lutherville; and six grandchildren.

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