Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Burning Passion

By Keith O'Brien

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  Richard J. Thomas greets you at the door of his spacious, well-kept apartment near Loyola University, a stone's throw from the stormy shores of Lake Michigan. His voice is almost startling as it shudders down the stairwell. It's the kind of voice that wakes up neighbors, lights up parties, likes to tell stories. From the doorway, his personality hits you all at once: He is 69 years old, a retired U.S. Army Colonel with forty years of service and tours of duty in Korea and Europe in World War II. He's somewhat intimidating, yet obviously happy to see you. Come in and meet the wife, he says. Yes, you think, I'd like to meet the wife.

He leads you slowly down the hall, calling for his wife in that amazing voice. His clean-shaven head glistens in the soft, gray afternoon sunlight spilling through the skylights in the ceiling. The refined whiskers of his white mustache dance on his upper lip as he speaks. The feet at the end of his long corduroy pants fall in long, sluggish strides, before stopping in the foyer. Awkward silence falls upon the apartment and you wait as Sally Thomas -- the wife -- appears from the muted shadows as quiet as the walls themselves.

She shakes your hand, pulls a strand of her white-speckled, charcoal hair over her ear and, perhaps, whispers hello. It's hard to tell, though, as her husband reminds her of the day's schedule of things to do. She listens and agrees to his afternoon agenda. He kisses her quickly, but lovingly, on her forehead. She smiles and you're off to hear the stories of Richard J. Thomas. In particular, there's the one about Sally and how he sued her in Federal court to get her to stop smoking cigarettes. While you don't yet know much about the man or the marriage, you know that story well.

It is a tale that made the tabloids drool, gave talk radio something to talk about and made "Man Bites Dog" headlines from here to Dusseldorf and from "Hard Copy" to The New York Times. It is a story that, both then and now, Sally wants no part of, but that her husband can't seem to get enough of.

Thomas v. Thomas was filed in Federal District Court in August under a section of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, seeking an injunction restraining Sally Thomas from smoking in the house. The case, despite all the press, never made it to a judge's decision and it will not appear in any law-school text. Because before this legal circus rolled on, Richard J. Thomas and his attorney Christopher Helt pulled the case out of court. As Thomas told the court the day he withdrew his suit, Sally had quit smoking after fifty years on the nicotine bandwagon and begun going to an addiction treatment clinic. Victory was his, Thomas later exulted in the press, and he no longer had any need to press his case.

Call it ludicrous or, like Richard J. Thomas, call it love, the story behind the case is an epic emblematic of an era in which smoking is losing popularity, lawyers are losing credence and love is losing ground. And no one tells it better than Richard J. Thomas. Which is good, because Sally isn't talking at all.

Richard J. Thomas settles into his chair at one of his favorite Rogers Park restaurants, lets the words tumble off his tongue and tells his precious story as he sees it. You listen both because you want to and because you have no other choice. And whatever you do, you don't call him Richard.

"Call me Dick," he tells you. "That's my name. All the women pursue it. All the men worry about it. I like my name. My name is Dick." OK, Dick. You got it. The story of Thomas v. Thomas, according to Dick Thomas, goes back a ways. As he tells it, smoking has been a bane of his existence ever since he was a straight-A student growing up in Waukegan. His older brother died in 1940 because of complications from an ear-ache then his mother -- a two-and-a-half-pack a day smoker -- died of heart disease about a year later. Thomas' grades and his life began to go to hell in a handcart.

He and his father, Harry, had a turbulent relationship that would end when Harry Thomas -- also a heavy smoker -- died in 1978, after eight years of living as an invalid due to a stroke. But during those formative years, Dick Thomas wanted nothing more than to end his relationship with his father and get as far away from Waukegan as possible.

And so he ran, riding the rails with a pal to St. Louis, spending time in the Clayton County Detention Home for Boys in Clayton County, Missouri, leaving again this time to Milwaukee after his father brought him home, and finally running away for good into the U.S. Army. He joined the 82nd Airborne, still just 16, and finally found a home amid the camaraderie of the military fraternity. He also found tobacco in his C-rations.

To this day, Thomas can remember the first time he lit up. It was near the end of the war in Europe. His division was in Germany close to the banks of the West Elbe River when Thomas and Sgt. Wind -- whose first name escapes him now, but whose nickname, "Breezy," remains clear in his mind -- stumbled onto the mangled body of an enemy soldier. "This German kid is just all ground up. His head is where his left arm should be and his arm is where his prick should be," Thomas recalls. "He's all fucked up with pieces of cloth and everything else and Wind says, 'Have a cigarette' and I said, 'I don't smoke.' He said, 'Ahh, you will.'" Breezy, of course, was right. Thomas smoked for more than thirty years before finally kicking the habit in the late 1970s. And he wants his wife to do the same, a message he's tried to get across through almost every conceivable means.

"He's an extreme guy," says Pat Graham, Thomas' college roommate at the University of Illinois at Champaign. "When he gets an idea, he's going to do it."

He is imaginative and creative in his approach to life and a writer by trade now that his Army days are done. Loud, brash, and oblivious to criticism, Thomas has always been different from others, whether it was running away from home as a kid or shaving his head as a balding, middle-aged man long before Michael Jordan gave truth to the phrase "bald is beautiful." Thomas is even different than his wife. He likes to jitterbug late into the night. Sally would settle just to watch. He likes to do comedy at open-mic nights at Chicago clubs. Sally prefers the shadows.

Thomas, unlike his soft-spoken wife, also loves a good fight. Thomas on John Wayne as a hero: "Shit. John Wayne has put more goddamn kids in military cemeteries all over the world and those wackos kind of lionize him. You can't open an American Legion magazine without seeing something that says, 'Get this John Wayne dish,' 'Get this John Wayne special .45.' They really get confused, my friends do. They think he was for real." Thomas on politics: "Conservatives are conservatives. They don't want to change nothin'. Liberals want to fuck with things all the time." Thomas on the tabloids that camped outside his home during August's media blitz: "These shows. They say they're doing the news. Many of them have as much to do with news as barnacles have to do with a ship. It's really shit." Thomas on the women who criticized him for his lawsuit: "I think I now know what divorced women want. They want every women in the world to be as bitter and frustrated and as hateful as they are. They said, 'I wouldn't take that shit from any man.' I hope Sally and I enjoy another ten years together and they can suck on that for a laugh."

And, of course, there's Thomas on smoking: "Smokers are like cockroaches. When you turn on the lights, they run. They never look you in the eye. You watch 'em -- smokers standing outside their office buildings in the cold, puffing away. No one looks at you."

But Thomas' take on his lawsuit may surprise you: "It's a love story. Perhaps, a tough love story," he says. Dick sued Sally because he loved her and couldn't stand to lose her, but in suing her he ran that very risk.

"I took the biggest gamble in my life. It could piss her off enough to leave, although I doubt it," he says. "But on the other hand, second choice, I can keep my fingers crossed and hope that nothing happens and I might be lucky. After all, somebody Lottos."

When Thomas told his wife he had contacted a lawyer and that they would be going to court, he didn't feel very lucky. Times were tense in the Thomas household.

"Every morning, as long as I can remember, she brings me coffee and brings me the newspaper and throws me the big pillows and throws me my T-shirt because I sleep naked," Thomas explains, offering perhaps a little too much information. "And very often I sing a little song there," he says, finding the words and then actually singing the tune right there in the middle of the restaurant. "Every morning when the sun comes up/She brings me coffee in my favorite cup/That's why I love her/That's why I love her/Yes I do. That's an old jazz tune from somewhere.

"Well, man, the morning after I filed the suit she was gone from the bed early and there was no coffee and there was no paper and particularly, if you want something to eat, you find it. No great breakfast. Nothin'."

There was no singing, either. Rather, the Thomases became the focal point of a media crush that illustrated in a way more personalized than the ongoing national tobacco settlement that when it comes to tobacco use in the 1990s, there is no middle ground. You are either a smoker, someone who hates smoke, or you are one of those people who says you don't mind smoking so as not to alienate friends or acquaintances. But each of these kinds of people were united in wanting to know what kind of deranged husband would sue his wife to get her to stop smoking. So Dick Thomas went on their radio and TV shows to answer the question. But when they wanted to know what kind of woman would put up with a husband like that, Sally wouldn't say. Such questions drove Sally and the media into a fit, but for very different reasons.

"People are very divided about smoking. It's a very black-and-white issue," says Helt, Thomas' attorney. Helt was so militant about getting his mother to stop smoking that as a child he would toss her packs of cigarettes down the toilet. The scheme worked for a while, getting her to stop while Helt, a 1993 graduate of Loyola Law School, was in high school. But now, like many others who have tried to snuff out the nicotine habit, Helt's mother is smoking again. "I have never met a person in the middle," he continues. "I have talked with people who say smoking is terrible, it smells bad. And then there are people who say, 'I'm going to do whatever I want with my life.' But most people who smoke say they want to quit. I think that's funny."

Helt is right. There is something innately ironic about today's average smoker -- the kind that needs that nicotine fix, but hates all the grief and guilt that goes along with each drag -- just as there is something inherently entertaining about Thomas' lawsuit against his wife. Sally's attorney in the case and friend of the Thomases for thirty years, Aram Hartunian, recognized the humor in the whole crazy thing from the start even as he saw that the case was troubling Sally.

"I kind of thought it was funny. I mean, the whole thing is loaded with humor," Hartunian says. "Dick was serious about the subject and the lawsuit. But no one can come away from this without a lighthearted feeling because of the comedy of it."

However, as Hartunian's legal instincts kicked in, he quickly realized that this case, whatever masochistic human funny bone it may tickle, was very serious. As the case moved on from when it was first filed at the end of August until the Thomases settled in October, everyone involved came to appreciate the sensitive nature of the proceedings. Helt and Thomas both received letters from people praising them for going after tobacco because its use had led to the death of a family member. On the last day in court, as Thomas told Federal Judge James Zagel that he was withdrawing his suit, supporters, including one man with tubes hooked up to his chest and an oxygen mask over his face, sat in the back. Everyone was visibly moved.

But also, as with any controversial topic that generates widespread love and admiration, came the hate -- the late-night phone calls in which strangers insulted Dick Thomas, the fliers outside the courtroom that questioned any man's right to challenge a woman's personal autonomy, and, yes, even vandalism. One morning not long after the initial media outburst over Thomas' suit, Dick Thomas walked out to his beautifully kept, metallic green 1967 Buick Skylark convertible only to find an angry, garbled message in permanent black marker waiting for him on the hood of the car: NO FEDS IN OUR HOMES YOU LIBERAL ATF LOVING TRAITOR SONAVABITCH SEE YOU SOON. Dick was angry -- not only about the car, but about the media's slant to the story. Didn't anyone understand this was an act of love? Sally, who perhaps didn't understand that fact immediately, either, was simply furious with him.

However, Thomas stuck to his guns. The ammunition, beyond his love for his wife, was a painful memory that he still cannot put behind him. In October 1978, Dick and Sally's daughter Kimberly was killed in a car crash. Kimberly was 21 and a student at Southern Illinois University. The Thomases, who also have two sons, now 43 and 40, took the news hard. Dick Thomas, no stranger to death, says he spent the weeks and months after Kimberly's death wandering like a zombie through his life, breaking out in tears for no apparent reason and wishing that he was dead or Kimberly was alive.

"You think, 'Well, if I get through the funeral I'm going to be all right.' But you realize that that's where the shit starts. And it has a direct bearing on where we are now because that was the worst -- the worst -- part of my life and I would have blown myself away if it weren't such a dirty trick to play on my woman and the boys," he says, rubbing his shiny head and staring off over your shoulder. "Because who wants to live with that kind of fuckin' pain filling your fuckin' guts from the top of your balls to the bottom of your throat -- nothing but one big throbbing sore?"

Kimberly's death and, more pointedly, Thomas' reaction to it, taught him a lesson, he says, that pushed him to sue his wife to stop smoking. After begging and pleading with her for years to snuff out her habit, Thomas saw a lawsuit as the last possible way to stop his wife from shortchanging her life and saving himself the grief of outliving her.

"I love the woman that I've been with. I've been with her for the last forty-three years. Think of what happens if she becomes incapacitated or dies? This means that I spend the last years of my life as a caregiver. No thanks. I've seen that. That's a dirty, thankless task. You do it if you have to, but if you have any options, why do it? Or," he offers, "she dies. Which means that I'm back in the goddamn doldrums banging into walls and shit like that. In my family, people pop off regularly at about 76 or 77. That gives me about five years. I'm going to spend it like that? Going to the cemetery on Saturday and crying about Sally? Fuck that shit. If that's the hand you get dealt, fine. But she's smoking, man," he says, his calm baritone whisper now transforming into a high-pitched wheeze. "She is smoking."

Not anymore she isn't, not according to her husband, anyway. Sally quit -- twice, actually. The first time, about six long days into the media blitz of pushy reporters and flashing cameras that swarmed to the story at the Thomas home, Sally told Dick she couldn't stand the attention anymore and that she was finished with cigarettes. Dick Thomas, absolutely overjoyed, faxed a letter to Helt, asking him to call off the case. Hours later, absolutely shocked, Dick Thomas smelled smoke in the house after being out all afternoon. He called Helt and the suit was on once again.

"I'm thinking, a junkie is a junkie is a junkie. If it were that easy to say 'I think I'll stop,' all of America would be saying, 'You know what? I've been drunk for twenty years. I think I'll stop.' You know, 'I've been shooting up for seven years now. I think I'll stop.' That's why it's called an addiction. You don't have any will over it. That's why it's called an addiction. Look it up."

Frustrated and facing an upcoming trial, which meant even more unwanted publicity, Sally sought help at the St. Francis Addiction Clinic and said she was done smoking. Her husband believed her and the case, for all intents and purposes, was closed. However, ironically, according to legal experts, including Stuart Deutsch, a professor and dean and the Chicago Kent School of Law, the case would not have lasted long if it had made it to Judge Zagel's bench.

"He filed his suit under a section of the Clean Air Act that regulates additives to fuels, like lead and other additives that must be licensed by the Environmental Protection Agency before it's put into gasoline," Deutsch explains. "I have a hard time saying that the EPA can get an injunction to stop selling fuel with an improper additive and turn that into something against smoking. That's why I say this was a losing lawsuit. Having said that, this captures our imagination as a cry for help and a step for people to protest the impact of smoking on their loved ones."

A protest, maybe. More media attention, for sure. But Deutsch and officials at the American Lung Association in Chicago do not foresee a future riddled with such suits. Rather, as the ALA's Janet Williams says, landmarks in the fight against tobacco will be set by national cases against the tobacco companies, not by personal crusades against another person's habit. Nevertheless, as someone who knows the facts all too well, Williams supported Thomas' suit.

"I think what he did showed the love he has for his spouse," she notes. "Of course I admire his courage. But I don't think we'll see a ground swell because of what he did."

Things are much quieter now around the Thomas home. The wind whips off the lake outside their windows as Sally brings Dick his coffee and newspaper in the mornings again and Dick, every once in awhile, will sing songs to his wife of forty-three years. During the day, he works on a screenplay of the Thomas v. Thomas case, which he is writing as a love story. He tells you life is lovely in his home and friends of the couple seem to agree that Dick and Sally Thomas, for all their differences, are going into the homestretch of life together, not apart.

"She knows him. She knows that when he'll get hold of an idea, he'll do strange things," says Dick's college roommate and friend Graham.

Dick Thomas is unsure what exactly made Sally quit. He thinks the publicity must have played a big part in her decision. But he also feels she came to terms with her own mortality because of all the talk about smoking and its long-term health effects. "She'll probably go to her grave without saying that she quit because she loves me," Thomas says. "But I don't care."

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