Friends and colleagues of Sixth Judicial District Senior Judge William Thomas described him this week as a “brilliant" man with a witty sense of humor who helped “humanize” the bench and all will greatly miss him.
Thomas, 68, who was appointed to the bench in 1981, died Sunday after his more than four year fight or “coexistence,” as he called it, with colon cancer. Thomas was in private practice and served as an assistant Linn County Attorney before being appointed to the bench. After he retired in 2006, he served as a senior judge until he retired full-time Jan. 16.
“Both sides were happy to have him as a judge,” former Linn County Attorney Harold Denton said. “He was one of the best we’ve had. He was good at anything he ever did. He had an absolutely terrific sense of humor and one of the nicest people you would ever meet.”
Denton graduated from University of Iowa College of Law with Thomas in 1973. They had been close friends since those college days. Denton said he had dinner for the last time with Thomas last Tuesday.
Bill Roemerman, who worked with Thomas when he was with Crawford, Sullivan, Read and Roermerman in 1979-81, said he was a "complete gentleman" and he always appreciated his humor.
“He was a keen observer of the human condition,” Roermerman said. “One time I remember when the firm moved into the Alliant building and watching the movers – he said ‘I prosecuted him. I prosecuted him. I recognized him but don’t think I prosecuted him.’ He wasn’t saying it in a mean way or making a judgment, just in a humorous way.”
Attorney Mike Lahammer said Thomas always ran a “tight courtroom” but a fair one. During one of Lahammer’s cases, a prosecutor had an outburst and later Thomas called both attorneys into his chambers and told the prosecutor if there was another “outburst like that, you will try your case from across the street in jail.”
Judge Marsha Beckelman, who called Thomas her “buddy judge” and mentor, said he was a warm hearted man with a “wicked sense of humor.”
“He was a wonderful optimist and a huge animal lover,” Beckelman said.
Beckelman got permission to take her Newfoundland puppy into the hospital the last time Thomas was there to cheer him up. She surprised him by sending in the 7-month-old in the room first, which provided what Beckelman hoped - a big smile.
Beckelman and others said Thomas’ adventurous activities and work kept him going after being diagnosed. He loved kayaking. He continued after the cancer but his trips slowed down. Before 2009, he took many paddling trips in Alaska, on Lake Michigan, Lake George and the Mississippi River, and his favorite adventure in the Galapagos Islands in 2007.
Thomas discovered kayaking in 2002 and did some training programs and then went the Kayak Academy in Seattle, while celebrating his 60th birthday in 2005.
Chief Judge Patrick Grady said he will be greatly missed as a friend and to the district as a judge. Thomas was the “pioneer” in Iowa regarding the 6th Judicial District Family Mediation program that started in 1996. The district was the first model for the state regarding mediation.
“He was always looking at a way to help people get through disputes without destroying relationships,” Grady said. “He was an intelligent and compassionate judge and he always had a way to inject humor in legal proceedings in the appropriate place….in an intellectual way.”
Jenny Schulz, director of the Kids First Law Center, said he used his humor to disarm people or conflict. When it got heated between families or attorneys, Thomas would use his quick wit to relax the situation and break the tension.
“His (rulings) were a pleasure to read,” Schulz said. “He used his humor and they were always interesting and well written. He helped remind people there is a human being sitting behind the bench.”
Schulz said it was a “huge honor” that Kids First is one of the places designated for memorial contributions.
His memorial service is 11 a.m. Friday at First Congregational United Church of Christ. Memorial contributions can be made to Mediation Services of Eastern Iowa, Indian Creek Nature Center Paddle Day and Kids First Law Center.