The first time I met the late Bill Thomas was on a union picket line in front of our Associated Press office in the Capitol in Sacramento. Our small Wire Service Guild unit had been picketing with the tacit approval of the governor, Ronald Reagan, who had led a couple of strikes himself while president of the Screen Actors Guild.
Running out of money and fearing the strike would be long, I had asked Tom Goff, the Los Angeles Times Sacramento bureau chief, about the possibility of going to work for the paper. A few days later, he brought Bill over to the picket line to meet me. I was embarrassed by the picket sign hanging around my neck. (Our arrangement prevented us from carrying signs with sticks). We went out for a drink and I enjoyed his company, especially his relaxed and confident manner. The strike ended, and we all went back to work. But a few months later, Bill offered me a job and I took my place in the Times newsroom, somewhat overwhelmed to be part of the talented staff he had assembled.
Bill let those talents flower, encouraging them to follow their ideas, which ranged from serious to zany, while guiding the writers in a subtle but strong way. He let me pursue stories he had doubts about. He would say it turned out ok when I finished one of those stories. This was a high compliment from him. And when the story appeared on A-1, that was another form of a Bill Thomas compliment.
Sometimes, Bill as metro editor and editor would give me assignments. Early in my career there, his friend Matt Byrne, who had been U.S. Attorney, was being denied appointment to the vacant district attorney job even though he was clearly best qualified. Bill told me to go up to the Hall of Administration and find out why. I learned that a powerful supervisor, Ernie Debs, opposed Byrne. As a federal prosecutor, Byrne had gone after a friend of Debs for running a card cheating operation at the Friars Club. Bill ran my story even though it made the Supes, longtime sacred cows at the Times, look bad.
In 1972, I was set to cover the presidential election when Bill, by then the editor, pulled me off. I hired you to cover LA politics, not run around the country, he said.
That thrust me into the dirtiest election I've ever covered -- races for district attorney and county supervisor. The latter was a real tough one. Supervisor Warren Dorn, a pet of Buff Chandler, publisher Otis Chandler's mother, was opposed by Baxter Ward, a former television news anchor. From my experience on the Debs' story, I knew Bill wanted this covered honestly. As the campaign began, I went down to his office and asked him if he had any advice. Don't make any mistakes, he said. That was the last I heard from him about the election until it was over. Dorn lost and I think my stories helped push him on the downward path. I went to see Bill in his office when it was over and asked him how he thought it went. He said he had to put his finger in the dike a few times but he thought it worked out well.
When he was editor we would sometimes go out for after-work drinks at the Redwood. He sat at the same table and was served by the same waitress, Alice. He enjoyed my company because I loved his stories about the old days at the Mirror and I never asked him for anything.
When he retired, we occasionally had lunch at Lakeside, his country club. After I was appointed city editor, I always asked for advice. He told me how he made it a point to circulate through the news room, taking to reporters at their desks rather than in his office. He told me how he encouraged the shy and insecure to come up ideas and how he dealt with the talented big egos. He said never go out to lunch with a reporter. "It takes too much time and you give away too much," he said.
As he got older, he couldn't get around much, and I'd drive to his home in the Valley for visits. He wanted to know all the gossip and news about the paper and, a fervent liberal, liked talking politics.
After he died, I thought about my great experience of our years together, back to our picket line meeting and our drink at the Senator Hotel in Sacramento many years ago.