It is rare for these pages to celebrate the life of one of our own, but Senior Editor Clarke Thomas, who died Saturday night at the age of 83, was no ordinary newspaperman. He was the dean of opinion writers in this region, widely known and greatly respected.
Shaped by the values of a different time and place, Clarke Thomas saw journalism as a vital form of community service and behaved accordingly.
This was what allowed him to win respect the old-fashioned way -- not by the force of his opinions or the cleverness of his writing, although they were solid, but because every editorial he wrote was informed, caring and meant to do good.
In this, he was true to his upbringing. He was born into a missionary family in Sierra Leone but he went to Kansas while still a boy for formal schooling. After junior college, he enlisted in the Army and served in the infantry in Europe at the end of World War II.
Back from the war, he earned a journalism degree at the University of Kansas, then proceeded to learn lessons he never forgot at small- and medium-sized newspapers in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, the sort of papers where readers are a writer's close neighbors.
When he came to the big city, Pittsburgh, in 1971, he made sure that he knew as many people as was humanly possible. The Ivory Tower, the mythical retreat for aloof editorial writers, was never for Clarke Thomas. He was always a presence in the community.
In making contacts, many of whom became friends, his curiosity made every conceivable subject interesting to him. In his heyday (he retired in 1991, but continued to write a monthly column for the op-ed page), it could be said that if you thought you were important but didn't know Clarke Thomas, you probably weren't.
As a past president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, Clarke Thomas should be mourned as more than a distinguished colleague of ours; he was a great friend of Pittsburgh whose words made a difference.
First published on February 24, 2009