Savage Truth: Remembering a media giant and friend

We called him Rick.

He was a man of short stature, a big heart, a contagious laugh and a humorous disposition. He was also a dedicated friend and co-worker.

Richard D. Thomas died last week after an extended illness. He packed a lot of life in his 67 years on earth.

I met Rick in 1973 when we were both young reporters at the Macon Telegraph. We became friends immediately. We'd talk about everything from family life and the stories we'd covered to the newspaper management. That group included a city editor who'd sometimes demean the newcomers.

Rick wasn't keen on demeaning, especially if he was the victim. The city editor stood about 6-foot-5, Rick about 5-foot-8. So when Rick and the editor got into a verbal dispute over a story Rick had covered, Rick grabbed a chair, climbed up on the seat and stood eyeball to eyeball with him and shouted his displeasure at his boss.

Everyone in the newsroom watched in amazement as the little guy dressed down the big guy. To my knowledge, the two events weren't connected, but the editor resigned his position a few weeks later. At age 24, Rick became city editor of the Telegraph, the youngest person to hold the position.

My friend became my boss, a working relationship that carried us through some of the most interesting and intriguing news stories in the history of Middle Georgia's dominant newspaper. Those stories included the Macon Police Department scandal, mass murderer Paul John Knowles and the academics versus athletics series that won me the Pulitzer Prize.

In the spring of 1975, five Macon detectives faced federal charges of taking bribes to protect vice crimes including gambling and prostitution. Rick assigned me to cover the situation, and we worked together to get pre-trial stories that would get the public interested in the upcoming trial.

All five detectives were convicted of the crimes. One of them, however, was exonerated on appeal. But the case resulted in a shakeup of the police department, and the FBI agent who oversaw the federal investigation, Travis Lynch, retired from bureau and became police chief.

A few months earlier, mass murderer Knowles was captured in Georgia and landed in the Bibb County jail. Rick kept the entire news staff on the run to make sure every angle was covered. Knowles had killed people in several states, including Georgia. He'd tape-recorded his murders and had handed the tapes over to his attorney.

Before being captured in Georgia, Knowles kidnapped a Florida trooper and Delaware businessman. They were missing, and because he'd crossed state lines, federal authorities were involved. They knew about the tapes and were trying to get his attorney, Sheldon Yavitz of Miami, to turn them over.

Because I'd been dealing with federal officials leading up to the police department case, Rick assigned me to cover the federal court's involvement in the Knowles and Yavitz situation. The feds wanted the tapes, thinking they might contain information about the missing trooper and businessman.

Yavitz acknowledged he had the tapes, but citing attorney-client privilege, refused to turn them over. Yavitz was held in contempt of court and tossed in jail. His wife, Patsy, was summoned to the courtroom. She also knew where the tapes were, but refused to turn them over. She was held in contempt and tossed in the Bibb jail.

Next came the attorney's attorney, Ellis Ruben of Miami, who said in a news conference outside the courthouse that he knew where the tapes were. U.S. Attorney Ron Knight overheard a couple of reporters, me included, talking about Ruben saying he knew where the tapes were.

Knight subpoenaed us both. We were to appear before a federal grand jury to testify that Ruben said he knew the tapes' location.

Rick had been intrigued by all the Knowles coverage, the helicopter and roadside searches that were going on along the interstate, the police angles, the local people who knew and loved Knowles and the federal court situation. But a subpoena of one of his reporters didn't blend with his firm belief that reporters cover the news, not make it.

He ran back and forth between upper management and the newspaper attorneys to determine whether to fight the subpoena or respond to it. Since Ruben made the remarks at an open news conference, Rick, and the group he'd pestered, determined it was okay to testify.

But Rick's fretting was all for nothing. A deer hunter found the bodies of the missing men in Pulaski County that afternoon and the grand jury testimony became a non-issue.

A few years later, Rick became executive editor of a newspaper in Boca Raton, Florida. In 1983, he returned to Macon as executive editor of the Telegraph. One of his first endeavors as the new editor was putting together a project examining academics and athletes at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.

At that meeting, Rick said we'd explore whether athletes received special privileges at those institutions and obtain their graduation rates. Rick assigned the project to Jackie Cosby and me. He instructed us to put together an outline of the project and prediction of the number of stories we'd need to write. He gave us until the next day to produce the outline.

Rick took the outline, reviewed it, made one change and told us to get busy. It took nine months for us to gather the data and write the stories. Along the way, Rick would ask a few questions and offer some suggestions. But he left the details to us.

The series was published in September of 1984. In December, Rick told us he was submitting the project for Pulitzer Prize consideration. Two days before the 1985 Pulitzer announcements were to be made, Rick told me to be in the office at 2 p.m. on announcement day. He also instructed me to wear a necktie that day. I don't like ties.

To this day, I don't know if Rick had inside information about the announcement. But I do know that at 2:01 p.m. on the day the announcements were made, Rick ran out of his office pumping his fist in the air and yelling, "yeah, yeah, yeah."

Jackie and I had won a Pulitzer. Like a first-time father in a maternity ward, Rick was running around the newsroom making calls, shaking hands and boasting like a politician.

Rick died on August 4, 2017.

Macon lost an outstanding newsman.

His family lost a loving father, husband and grandfather.

 I lost a great friend, former coworker and former boss, but I'm delighted our paths crossed.

© 2017 WMAZ-TV


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