December 13, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 50

Thomas' ascent: From millhand to Alaska legislator

In 2006, a certified public accountant brought in to review the books of the Southeast Alaska State Fair determined the organization was bankrupt. A former executive director had allowed charges at local stores, federal tax bills, and associated penalties to pile up to a debt of more than $100,000.

“We owed so much to the federal government in taxes. The federal government was putting the squeeze on us. We owed (creditor) Roger (Schnabel) a bunch of money. The fair would have been done, basically,” recalled resident Scott Doddridge, who had recently become fair board treasurer.

State Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, provided the lifeline, securing state appropriations of $120,000 to keep the organization afloat. “It saved the fair, pretty much,” Doddridge said in an interview this week.

Thomas, who was in San Antonio, Texas, last week helping care for his father-in-law, said he hoped his legacy as a four-term legislator would be the good things he did for his hometown.

Haines Mayor Stephanie Scott this week estimated Thomas steered as much as $95 million in state funds to projects and groups in the Chilkat Valley.

A recent appropriation of $50,000 to the Takshanuk Watershed Council for Lynn Canal beach cleanup will put local youths to work next spring.

Providing jobs was a priority for Thomas, 65, a lifelong commercial fisherman who rose to be co-chair of the powerful House Finance Committee before losing this year to Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka.

Thomas also worked more than a decade as a lobbyist in the Alaska Legislature and previously served as CEO of Native village corporation Klukwan, Inc., as a member of the Haines Borough Assembly and board member of Chilkoot Indian Association.

“It’s easier to fail these days than to be successful,” Thomas said during an interview before the recent statewide election campaign, comparing his life growing up here to the world of today’s youth. The big difference, he said, is jobs.

“Back then, people worked, people looked forward to going to work. We had the (lumber) mills. People wanted to work, that’s how they got ahead. There is a difference now: the economy has completely swung differently. We don’t have mills. Primarily it’s fishing and tourism. Back then you could fish in summer and longshore in winter. You had more options.”

Thomas worked in the mills sawing lumber and loading logs after returning from his 1968 tour in Vietnam. “It was hard work… Get up in the morning at 4:30, get a truck back at 7 at night and go play basketball, get up the next day at four-thirty to catch the first truck out the highway.”

A timber-industry accident claimed the life of Danny Thomas, Thomas’ oldest brother. The accident was a turning point in Bill Thomas’ life, said his wife Joyce. “Danny was the oldest so he was kind of the head of the family, and with him gone, Bill had to step up, and he did. I think that really woke him up.”

Lifelong friend and longtime neighbor Sue Meacock said Thomas got his work ethic from his mother, Margaret Thomas. Thomas’ father, a construction worker also named Bill Thomas, left town after Thomas was born.

“(Margaret) was single and there were three kids. She took in laundry, she raised them, she worked hard, and she instilled that work ethic in her children. Back in those days you worked or you went hungry... We were all poor.”

Thomas’ brother, Clifford Thomas, said his younger brother liked to work and was persistent. “He was always wanting a job. When he wanted a job from (mill owner John) Schnabel, he went out there every day, asking for a job… Schnabel finally got tired of him coming in every day, and put him to work on the loader.”

Bill Thomas said he thinks school was different back then, too. “School was hard work. We were disciplined then. If you spoke when you shouldn’t, then they’d whack you with a ruler.”

Thomas claims to remember all his teachers and he can reel off a long list of names: Olerud, Ward, Whittaker, Hopper, Ebert, Erikson, Turner. But he doesn’t go into specifics of what he learned from them. “I can’t put blame on any of them for my success. They all played a part.”

Clifford Thomas recounted that, as an adult, Bill Thomas tracked down the address of their father. “He went up to the house, walked up to the door, then said, ‘The hell with it.’ He never did knock on the door. He just turned around. (Bill) decided he didn’t want to know what his father looked like or what he was about.”

Thomas remembers the event differently, saying he wasn’t sure he had the correct address. When asked how his father’s absence affected him, Thomas cited the influence of grandfather Bill Sparks and turned the conversation toward Haines.

“You know how they say, ‘It takes a village (to raise a child)… Even though I was the child of a single parent, I had 50 fathers. Everybody kept an eye on people and made sure they behaved.”

Thomas credited social worker Harriet Botelho, mother of Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, with steering him into the public arena. When he was a junior in high school, she took him to seminars throughout Alaska, school programs that involved debating and discussing issues. “They were weeklong and 10-day trips. That opened the door, a little. I learned to talk to other people,” Thomas said.

After a semester at University of Alaska-Fairbanks and a stint working on a fish tender, Thomas was drafted. He served as an E4 in the Army’s 210 Combat Aviation Battalion, as an airplane mechanic and crew chief. The planes flew troops and VIPs between Vietnamese cities. Thomas said he was a “sandbag specialist,” helping build perimeters of airfields that sometimes came under attack.

On returning home he joined a pile buck crew working under uncle Evans Willard, and started fishing as a deckhand on the Bantry, a gillnetter he bought years later. In the mid-1970s, he helped with land selection work for village Native corporation Klukwan, Inc. and a few years later became the second CEO and board chair of the corporation, as it became wealthy logging timber-rich land in southern Southeast.

Thomas led the corporation until 1985 when he went to work as a lobbyist for Klukwan, Inc., eventually developing his own clients.

He worked the halls of the capitol for about 14 years then won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 2004. He was re-elected three times.

“The reason I got elected is because I knew people, because of my life experiences as a Vietnam vet and a fisherman,” Thomas said. “I played basketball with everyone. If you want to be successful you need to get out and talk to people. A politician is different from (other professions). You have to keep juggling. I will cover six or eight or 10 issues in one day, 10 or 15 communities.”

Thomas cited his grandmother, Mildred Sparks, an active community leader, as leading him to involvement in public issues. “I joined the school board and then became involved in the village corporation world. It just kind of evolved.”

Thomas said his proudest legislative accomplishments are passage of a $50 million renewable energy bill he sees as key to reducing the cost of living in communities like Haines, and legislation benefitting veterans.

He took a pass at naming his proudest life accomplishment. “I’ve never thought of that… I just try to get through the day.”

He said his favorite thing to do when he gets time off is to go home. But he never stops politicking: “I have been married 34 years. My wife was my high school sweetheart. Then I’ll go into the office, let people come visit me. I like to go into the Bamboo Room to have breakfasts. When I’m around town, my truck will be in front of the Bamboo Room most every day.”

Joyce and Bill have five grown children, including a son each had before they married. She remembers her junior high crush on him. “He played basketball and he was athletic and he kind of walked around, bounced around. I remember that walk of his, like he was ready to go play.”

Joyce said her husband still has that type of energy – “He just keeps going. He is amazing, I couldn’t keep up with him, never could. Kids can’t” – but she says it takes a toll as well. “He is tired a lot. His mind is always working. He always has a phone on his ear. He’ll be one of those guys that gets cancer from talking on the phone too much. But he loves meeting people, knowing people. There is hardly anywhere we go where we don’t meet people that he knows.”

This week, Thomas said he and Joyce were enjoying relaxing in Texas. “We get to sleep, watch TV, lounge around and eat food – all the good things,” Bill said.

As for the future, Thomas said he would continue fishing and perhaps dive into fish politics.

Thomas has some advice for Haines youth: “If you have an idea, chase it down. If you want to invent something, develop something… use ingenuity. Don’t be afraid to try something, it might work. You don’t know it won’t work until you try it.”

“Over the Mountains” features Haines residents who’ve achieved success. This story was initially written last spring. Publication was delayed in the interest of fair coverage during the election season.

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His wife, Joyce Marie, moved to Haines from Texas with her family in 1957 when she was eight years old. Her father came up to work on the army tank farm. She remembers arriving in Haines on a floatplane from Juneau, “we took off from the water and water was running down the aisle. And I remember looking out the window and seeing a whale. I was amazed.”

Joyce also remembers Bill Thomas as a kid, pulling her hair at the movie theater and she fell for him when she was in the seventh or eighth grade. “You know that crush that you get.

Joyce left Haines before she finished high school and moved to Oklahoma. Both Thomas and Joyce married other people, but Bill did not forget about Joyce. After his first marriage ended, he went out looking for his old high school sweetheart. At that time, Thomas was lobbying for Klukwan, Inc. in Washington D.C. There, he asked the Senator from Oklahoma to help him find her. When he did find her, she too, was single.

He visited her two or three times and then told her she had better come to Haines, because he couldn’t keep coming down to Oklahoma once fishing season started. “It was the same bouncy guy, the basketball player, but he would just work himself to death out there (fishing). Even now.” She returned “home” in 1977 and went fishing with Thomas and “fell in love again.”

“his, mine and ours” is how Joyce describes it. “Bill has always liked kids, especially babies, he loves babies.”

Although Bill loves his work, But it is hard having him be away so much. When he was fishing, at least he used to be home in the winter.”

Both Clifford and Meacock note that Thomas is known by his friends and family for his generosity. “If you need help, he is there,” Clifford said in a telephone interview, “He’ll give you a jacket or the shirt off his back. We know how hard it was when you didn’t have no money and you needed something. My brother is always good about helping others, you just have to ask him… But if you get shitty with us, the help is gone. If you get mad at him, cuss at him, then he won’t have nothing to do with you. That is all the help you will get out of him. My sister is that way, too, and so am I.”

For Thomas, his time in Vietnam serves as a constant reminder of the importance of civic participation. “Everybody should be voting. That’s how you get involved. Read the pamphlets, get involved, vote. A lot of people sacrificed their lives for freedom and our right to vote, and I think people better cherish that.”