I have met many famous people in my life as a columnist and an editor. Most were just passing through — an interview perhaps, a story, a quote. Perhaps a series of current events led me to them, like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Or the long list of jazz musicians I have written about over the years.
But Clarence Thomas was different. He was Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and I was the Monday columnist for the Long Beach, Calif., Press Telegram. Clarence was heading for the kind of fame that had most Americans able to recognize his name, but my "fame" would only reach as far as the communities in which my columns were published.
But for a while we were friends. I used a Thomas quote I pulled from Jet Magazine for one of my columns in the late 1980s. He got a copy of it and phoned me from Washington, D.C., to thank me for using it and to tell me that he liked the column.
We talked on the phone for a while and I agreed to meet him at a conference he was planning to attend in Anaheim. We met, chatted for a while, exchanged phone numbers and said good-bye. But we kept in touch over the next few years, years that saw Clarence move from the Employment Commission to a federal judge, to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court of the United States.
We spoke on the phone frequently, and it was always a pleasure to hear his deep voice on the phone saying, "Hello Ken. It's Clarence."
We spoke about our jobs, politics, black life in general, and the headlines of the day. We didn't always agree, but when we disagreed we didn't yell at each other — even when the subjects were as emotionally charged as affirmative action.
If there is one thing I have learned from Clarence Thomas it is that it is healthy to have friends who disagree with you, but who aren't interested in beating you up over the differences.
In fact, as an opinion columnist, it is a good thing to have friends who disagree with me. It exercises my thinking muscles and has been the source of many columns over the years. Just don't fight with me over the disagreements.
In California my late brother, John, lived with me for a few years. He decided to move to Virginia and share a house with his son, Stephen. I suggested that he meet with Clarence Thomas because Clarence might be able to give him some good advice. The way my brother described the meeting was as follows.
"I called Justice Thomas' office and made an appointment. When I arrived at the reception desk they announced my arrival and he came out to greet me in person. He took me to a small conference room, closed the door, pulled up some chairs and talked with me for about an hour. It was very friendly and nice, not what I have come to expect from important people."
When I was working as public information director for Compton Community College I invited Thomas to speak to the students. Not only did he agree, he came at his own expense and spent quality time with the students.
Afterwards a couple of administrators and I planned to take Thomas for dinner at an upscale soul food restaurant in Santa Monica.
Surprisingly, he refused to go preferring instead to go to a small local restaurant. We found one in Long Beach and headed there. We had a good meal, then kicked back and discussed just about everything under the sun. The four of us had a good conversation that night.
And finally, the issue that just about everyone raises when I tell them that I know Clarence Thomas. Sadly, it became one of the biggest "he said — she said" scandals in history. All I can add is that in the years when I was close to Clarence Thomas there was nothing he ever said that would lead me to suspect that he would disrespect women in any way. While we may differ politically it has been a privilege to have known him.
Ken Wibecan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.