Whether fighting for his country overseas, protecting people as a police officer, preserving local history or going the extra mile to become a highly capable planning commissioner, longtime Vienna resident Theodore “Ted” Thomas always gave it his all.
Thomas, who died May 27 at age 97, received a heartfelt tribute from Vienna resident Jerome Covel at the start of the June 17 Vienna Town Council meeting.
“Ted loved Vienna and he wanted to serve the community any way he could and help improve it,” said Covel, a friend of Thomas for 45 years.
Theodore Roosevelt Thomas Sr. was born in Vienna on Sept. 22, 1921. He saw combat in Europe during World War II and learned to speak Italian while serving in Italy. Thomas participated in several major battles and was awarded several combat citations, including a combat Purple Heart. He also was an honorary Tuskegee Airman, Covel said.
After the war, Thomas was one of the first four African-American motorcycle officers in the traffic division of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington. He later served as a plainclothes detective and was among the first two black police officers assigned to the U.S. District Attorney’s Office for Special Investigations.
Following that assignment, he returned to the police department’s detective bureau and stayed there for the remainder of his career. Thomas later worked for the U.S. Department of Justice, where he executed court processes and orders as a deputy U.S. marshal.
He left that position after the District of Columbia, public schools superintendent asked him to organize a Safety and Security Office for the school system. Thomas became the system’s assistant director for safety and security.
After retiring from the D.C. school system, Thomas in September 1997 transferred his membership from Shiloh Baptist Church in the District to First Baptist Church of Vienna, where he later served on the board of trustees.
Thomas was active in the Vienna community and former Mayor Charles Robinson and his wife, Maud, often would consult him on local issues, Covel said.
Former Mayor M. Jane Seeman also valued his input and asked Thomas to craft a PowerPoint presentation on the need to preserve the community’s black history and cemeteries.
For his efforts at saving black-history sites in the town – including West End Cemetery, the original First Baptist Church building on Lawyers Road, that church’s Sons and Daughter’s Cemetery and a baptismal pond located near Nutley Street and Courthouse Road, S.W. – Thomas received a Heritage Preservation Award from the Vienna Historic Preservation Society.
Town officials in the 1970s appointed Thomas to serve on the Vienna Planning Commission, an assignment he took on “with a great deal of pride and responsibility,” Covel said.
At the time of his appointment, Thomas was the first and only member of that commission to become a certified planning commissioner by taking a course in Richmond.
Thomas also served on the Dulles Task Force and the Vienna Transportation Safety Commission and was vice president of the Malcolm-Windover Heights Civic Association. County officials in 2003 honored Thomas as Lord Fairfax for Hunter Mill District, citing his volunteer service in the community.
About three weeks before his death, Thomas told Covel about growing up in Vienna during the segregation era. If Thomas wanted to buy something from a store then, he would have to wait until the white customers were served, Covel said.
“He said that was difficult to endure,” Covel said. “His comment to me was, ‘That was just the way it was. You could not complain to anybody. Nothing was going to change.”
Thomas also was not allowed to attend Vienna’s high school and instead had to board a trolley near what now is the Freeman Store & Museum and take it 14 miles to Key Bridge, where he walked into the District of Columbia.
“Ted has been great mentor to me,” Covel said. “He exposed me to the unrecorded and lost black history of the town of Vienna. I’ve been very fortunate to have Ted Thomas as a mentor. The town of Vienna has lost a great citizen, statesman, historian, patriot, my mentor and good friend.”
Covel asked the Town Council to consider renaming Vienna Police Headquarters after Thomas following the facility’s upcoming renovation and expansion.
“The town has been blessed to have Ted Thomas in our community and he will be greatly missed,” said Mayor Laurie DiRocco.
Thomas and his wife, Lorraine, were married for 73 years and had a son, Theodore Thomas Jr., and daughter, Deborah Stone. In addition, Thomas is survived by granddaughters Jacquelyne Gordon and Elizabeth Mason and three great-grandchildren.
Funeral services for Thomas were held June 7 at First Baptist Church of Vienna. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.