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Looking Back: D. T. Thomas reflects on 30 years with Thomas Edison (January 5, 1958)

This story appeared in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times on January 5, 1958. What follows is the text of the original story, interspersed with photos of the event taken by Times staff photographer George Trabant.

DAD THOMAS . . . and his Mr. Edison

By Dick Bothwell

Times Staff Writer

"Mr. Edison was working on a strong light," says the tall, lean old man in his gentle voice. "He told me to shine this light on a steer. It killed the steer, he went right down. There were soldiers there to see it. I think Congress cut it out, it was too brutal."

Thus, in a few sentences, the remarkable man who worked for 30 years with Thomas Alva Edison gives you a long-forgotten glimmer of World War I history, on the sagging porch of his little, weather-beaten home at 1041 Burlington Avenue North.

• • •

D. T. (DAD) THOMAS IS 90 but doesn't look it. His face is comparatively unlined; he looks even younger when he breaks into one of his radiant smiles, a frequent occurrence.

1958 photo by George Trabant

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How much does he remember about the Wizard of Menlo Park, Fort Myers' patron saint? A great deal, evidently. Only occassionally does his memory wander as we sit on his modest veranda and finger the olden times.

"Was with Mr. Edison 30 years," Dad Thomas says, speaking clearly and pleasantly. "I didn't lose a day or an hour. I got in touch with him shining his old Congress shoes. I was working in a Live Oak (Fla.) barber shop – I was born right close to there – one time when Mr. Edison came down on a hunting trip. He came in to get his shoes shined, and he said "How would you like to go back home with me to Jersey City?"

After a year or so, the great inventor sent his new employee up to Alabama for schooling.

"Booker T. Washington's school in Tuskegee, (Tuskegee Institute) it was. I went there to learn blueprint work. After I got out of school in 1901, I started coming down to Fort Myers with him.

• • •

"Later on I got to know Mr. Ford. He was his buddy, and Mr. Firestone too . . . I didn't think Mr. Ford would make it with his first car. He got it so far with one cylinder and couldn't get it no further. Mr. Edison helped him out. He would never have gotten nowhere with it if it hadn't been for the old man . . ." (The Model-T went into production in 1908.)

1958 photo by George Trabant

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The world's greatest inventor patented more than a thousand devices in his 60 years of inventing – and Dad Thomas was a part of many of them.

In the laboratory at Fort Myers, the lean, tall man in the rocker says, "Mr. Edison didn't sleep much. He'd jump up and ring the bell for me. I slept on the top floor. I didn't sleep much either. When things would get on him real hard, he'd wake me up, give me the rough idea and I'd make blueprints of it. Lots that he did they'd mothball, or just sell the blueprints."

Dad Thomas recalls particularly what has been termed Edison's "most original" invention, the "graphanola" or phonograph.

"I changed the needle from steel to diamonds," the old man says proudly. "You know I was the first that sang a song on it?"

The magnificent smile flashes again. The gray head goes back and the clear voice sings, ". . . popped his whip and the lead mule spring . . ."

• • •

WHAT SORT OF A MAN was Edison?

"If he'd walk up here right now he'd start joking," beams Dad. "He was serious at times but he liked to tell jokes. Only hobby I remember he had was fishing . . . I've seen him go out with Mr. Ford's boy to the golf course, set down and directly he'd be asleep.

"After they put that bridge across to his house he'd fish off it, but he was just as 'feered of water as a goat. He pushed me off in the river (Caloosahatchee) one day because he knew I could swim."

• • •

INSIDE THE CLUTTERED front room, Dad points out an old-fashioned roll-foot bed with copper springs: "This was his bed he gave to me."

He exhibits a German silver teapot and a cereal dish: "Mr. Edison used to eat Cream of Wheat and shredded wheat biscuit. He didn't have any regular eating time, he was always chewing on something."

1958 photo by George Trabant

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Against the wall beneath a wide assortment of pictures clipped from magazines sits an elderly wine cabinet that once belonged to Edison:

"Wine was about all he'd ever use. I forget what kind it was but it was awful good, imported . . . This is one of his bow ties. He could tie 'em but he couldn't tie 'em like me, he couldn't get 'em long enough for his big neck. Size 17."

1958 photo by George Trabant

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When the inventor died in 1931, he left Dad Thomas $10,000.

"I'm 'shamed to tell you what happened. I went to Plant City and opened a bar, but my sight failed me then."

Between the business and doctor bills, the money melted. After a brief stay in Sarasota, Thomas came to St. Petersburg in 1945.

• • •

HE LIVES ALONE with his memories, in fairly good health despite his eyesight, which allows him to "read headlines only."

On Sundays, a son by his second wife comes visiting from Plant City.

• • •

"I WAS ALWAYS THIN," muses the old man. "Mr. Ford often told me I'd have to be careful with myself, but I never had TB . . . the doctor dead, Mr. Ford dead, Mr. Edison dead, I'm still here.

"I think that's what made me live as long as I have, that job being so interesting. A person can help themselves if they don't kill the inward man."

1958 photo by George Trabant

Back of photo

See the original 1958 story in the Times Google News Archive.

To order reprints or download any image from this story, please visit the Times image archive.

Tim Rozgonyi

Twitter: @timrozgonyi

e-mail: trozgonyi@tampabay.com

Looking Back: D. T. Thomas reflects on 30 years with Thomas Edison (January 5, 1958) 05/18/17 [Last modified: Thursday, May 18, 2017 9:27am]
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