I was saddened to learn of the death of Clarke Thomas, who went out of his way to be kind to me some 30 years ago when I did my first stint on the PG editorial page, and subsequently over the years, even though we were as different as chalk and cheese.
He even forgave me when I made fun in the paper about his book on local ethnic communities and their customs "They Came to Pittsburgh." (Being an incorrigible wise guy, I called it "They Came to Pittsburgh - and Did Funny Dances.")
As it turned out, Clarke taught me an important lesson that was later to help me immensely when I became the editor of a small paper out in California - that lesson being the importance of staying close and connected to the community.
After the Watergate scandal, a whole crop of ethical sensitivities arose in the land. In journalism, they took the form of journalists retreating from all sorts of community affiliations lest they be thought compromised. In the purest (or craziest) form, the beyond-reproach journalist would not even be registered to vote with a particular party, might not even vote at all, and would be extremely careful in making friends with anyone.
This might be called the journalist-as-monk view of the profession, the goal being to be seen as politically chaste. I always thought it was bunk, and of course it has made no difference; the more pious journalists became the more despised the profession became. Polecats are now more popular.
Still, I must admit that some revision was probably in order. In living memory, an editor of the PG was on a suburban school board, a situation that Young Nellie and her dog might realize was a potential conflict of interest. It's good too that freebies like the bottles of whiskey that used to arrive openly from flacks at Christmas time have now largely disappeared.
Clarke Thomas showed me how you could be involved deeply in the community without compromising yourself. He certainly wasn't a member of any school board and he wasn't much of a drinker (I told you we had little in common) but he went out of his way to make friends with countless people across racial, economic and political lines.
When The Pittsburgh Press was still going back in the 1980s, it did a survey of the 100 most influential people in Western Pennsylvania. As I remember it, Clarke placed about 17th, higher than the editors of the two papers and many local politicians and other luminaries.
Apart from his friendly manner, his special gift was that nothing was boring to him - people responded to him because he was genuinely interested in what they were doing, no matter what it was. And as many friends and acquaintances as he had, nobody thought he had a conflict of interest, for the simple reason that it was plainly obvious that he was a decent person.
When I went out to Monterey, California, in 1988 to be the editor of The Herald, then owned by the Block family, I had Clarke's example in mind and I made a real effort to do in that small community what he did in Pittsburgh. Of course, his view of journalism was shaped by his small paper beginnings. On smaller papers, the local community is the bread and butter of the business.
Clarke's life confounded the right-wing stereotype of liberal editorial writers. He was a devout churchgoer (his parents were missionaries in Africa), a veteran and a patriot who viewed communism as an affront to his liberal principles and, yes, a do-gooder who actually did a lot of good and was respected by all for doing it. By natural inclination, he was socially conservative but experience and wisdom taught him tolerance.
This week the world has one good person fewer. Goodbye kind friend.