By Mickey Foellger
Fort Thomas and Highlands lost a champion this year. Bill Thomas, Class of ’65, was voted the Outstanding Highlands’ Alumnus for 2013, and was the editor and publisher of Inside Fort Thomas, a local newspaper, and he wrote two books about Ft. Thomas and one about Highlands football. He passed away in June.
I believe he won the alumni award for his love of Fort Thomas, demonstrated by 37 years of writing about the little city and the school, 7 years of coaching Highlands girls’ soccer, and possibly because he originally suggested the Alumni Association Award that he ultimately received. But, it was more than apropos. He and his cousin, Bert, have started the Fort Thomas Forest Conservancy, too.
I grew up in the same neighborhood as Bill, and we were both members of the Orchard Hill Gang. Yes, you can laugh out loud at the notion of a gang in North Fort Thomas, and it was more like Spanky’s, but we were very active and mischievous, and there were just so many of us around the same age. Baby Boomers. So, I use the term “gang” as defined in the 1950’s in Mayberry, U.S.A.
Bill was always coming up with ideas, like Marble Baseball. I still marvel at how he came up with that one, for rainy days. Take an ordinary throw rug, maybe 6 X 9, and build a miniature baseball diamond, focusing on 3” cardboard advertising, like cereal boxes, for a home run fence, and place cigar boxes strategically throughout the field as “fielders” (if your marble hit a box, you were out). Construct a slide for the pitched “baseball” marble to roll down toward home plate where the “batter” hit the marble with his (usually) larger marble. It took some talent and finesse to get a marble airborne and over the fence for a home run.
We also built a wiffle ball baseball stadium behind Bill’s house, on the vacant lots off Covert Run (now two beautiful homes) used by Henry Pogue for storage while he developed the neighborhood, again focusing on a home run fence built from left-over doors and other construction debris. That was until Bob Johnson’s father, Claude, built us a couple-acre baseball field next door to his home on North Ft. Thomas Avenue (also now two or more beautiful homes).
And, in the backyards of the three adjoining properties on Bill’s north side of the street, he came up with a game that honored the pride of Ft. Thomas (football), and extended well into our adult years: Slow-Motion Football.
Bill was always small in stature, but loved football. We were both small, and there’s a photo of us in one of his books on the first championship (red) team of the Ft.Thomas Jr. League in 1959.
“I played in one play per game”, he recalled. “That was the rule back then. I think everyone is required to play a half today”.
Slow-Motion Football was an obvious response to the introduction of slow motion replays on Sunday NFL games, and it was a way of changing pick-up games to “level the playing field” for those who were otherwise overmatched. It was great fun, especially the “color commentary”, and we found ourselves getting together to play well into our 30’s during Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. One Christmas, I found myself on the roof of a neighbor’s house, filming (in 8mm) “the game” below in the front yard. (Probably was the last one, remembering the damage done to their lawn and shrubery.)
Bill’s dad graduated from Highlands and worked at P&G, and his mother had their new home so beautifully decorated with antiques that it looked like a photo out of Better Homes & Gardens. Bill obviously inherited that appreciation from his mother, as he owned and lived in the home built and occupied by famed author and artist, Harlan Hubbard, behind the houses on Highland Avenue, and filled it with antiques. The property includes Hubbard’s one-room studio cabin, where both men spent many creative hours.
Mr. Thomas attended college at Transylvania University, and we found ourselves reacquainted after that as law students at the University of Kentucky. He was married and I wasn’t, so we didn’t socialize much. But, the summer after second year, he asked me if I wanted to be the senior counselor at summer camp he and his wife were going to run for underprivileged inner-city kids at Camp Sunshine in Mentor. (I guess he noticed that I had volunteered as a juvenile probation officer in Lexington that semester.)
I spent that summer sleeping in bunk bed in a cabin down by the river with kids, some of whom were frightened enough to wet their beds. One of my favorite summers, though. It seemed to have an effect on my career.
Bill interviewed with several law firms after graduation, but none close to home, so he accepted a job with National Underwriters, a publishing firm in Cincinnati, and worked there for 27 years, writing, editing and doing legal research. His boss was Ken Duff from Ft. Thomas, and Jim Stegman was sales manager, and Ken’s wife, Ray, wrote and edited for this publication, Ft. Thomas Living.
In 1977, Bill Thomas was a writer for Jim Lied and Pete Baker the The Fort Thomas Living, with Bill focusing on sports and the highly successful Highlands’ football program.
“I’m sure there was a little revenge in my heart when I started Inside Ft. Thomas in 1998”, Bill said, shortly before his death, “but I missed it, and I saw a need, and I knew we could put out as good a paper. I was originally just going to write about sports, but other things kept falling into place.”
For example, I was running in an election that year and (my committee) agreed to place an ad in Bill’s new paper, and I asked him about the paper, “Who’s going to write about music?”
So, I wrote a column for Bill for 15 years.
“It’s really been fun”, Bill said with a smile. “It’s the best decision I ever made, starting my own paper. It’s been a good little job for me. And, it’s allowed me to be more creative. My other job was like working in the library, mostly alone with my books. But, this made me get out and interact with people in the community. I’ve been able to meet some of the most influential people in Northern Kentucky, and that’s been fascinating.
“Kenny Shields was my favorite Close Encounter interview. He could go on forever, on anything. The self-made men were the most interesting, like Wayne Carlisle, Jim Huff and Bill Butler. And, Jim Bunning was the most difficult, in his early years as a politician.”
“And, it’s been rewarding, because it’s good for the community. It’s good to share the thoughts of these people with the community. The paper has been all positive. Where else can you find a job that’s almost always positive?