To see if inmates’ complaints were exaggerated, Jack Thomas went undercover for a week in 1972 to live in a cell at Boston’s Deer Island House of Correction, where he wrote about the hellish squalor in which convicts were consigned to live.
“The inmates had underestimated the situation,” he later wrote in The Boston Globe.
Infested with vermin, and largely ignored by city officials, the jail “serves more as a school of crime for young men than a center for rehabilitation,” Mr. Thomas wrote. Inmates passed the time with smuggled drugs, dulling their awareness of the surroundings.
“Before I could go to sleep, I’d brush the cockroaches from the walls and ceilings, being careful not to crush any of them,” he wrote. “Other inmates had warned me not to smash the roaches against the wall because other roaches would take their place and, eventually, you’d have a wall covered with crushed roaches.”
A reporter, columnist, city editor, and ombudsman during more than four decades at the Globe, Mr. Thomas wrote a powerful Sunday Globe Magazine essay last year when he was diagnosed with cancer. He was 83 when he died Saturday in his Cambridge home.
“I just wish I could stay a little longer,” he wrote in July 2021.
“As the saying goes, fate has dealt me one from the bottom of the deck, and I am now condemned to confront the question that has plagued me for years: How does a person spend what he knows are his final months of life?”
As a reporter and columnist, he had profiled the famous and powerful, along with highlighting those whom society considered disposable.
In retirement, he had attended the Harvard Extension School to complete long-abandoned undergraduate studies, receiving a bachelor’s degree in his 70s.
As a dying man, Mr. Thomas wrote the magazine essay, which became one of the Globe’s most-read stories of 2021.
“Jack set a standard for elegant writing at the Globe that has endured long after he retired,” said Brian McGrory, the Globe’s editor. “He was among the best that this newspaper ever had.”
Mr. Thomas also worked during the past year with longtime colleague Matthew V. Storin, who formerly was the Globe’s top editor, to create the Tom Winship Scholar in Journalism program at Northeastern University.
“It was truly inspiring bordering on heroic that Jack spent the last year of his life doing such purposeful work,” said his wife, Geri Denterlein, who founded and is chief executive of a prominent public relations firm.
The Winship scholarship, which promotes diversity and elevates the underrepresented, was inaugurated in March and named for the late legendary Globe editor. In spirit, it carries on Mr. Thomas’s newsroom legacy as well.
“I doubt there was ever a more talented wordsmith in the paper’s history,” Storin said.
More than 60 years passed from when Mr. Thomas first folded a newspaper to toss on a porch as a paperboy to his retirement from the newsroom, in 2005.
“I’ve never known anybody who loved the people of the business or loved thinking about them more than he did,” Storin said. “The Globe was his whole life in many ways. It was enormously satisfying to him to be at the Globe and doing the work of a reporter.”
Never shying from giving himself a challenging assignment, Mr. Thomas spent a week living on Boston’s streets in the winter of 1992 to give readers a close-up look of homeless lives. He prepared by skipping haircuts for a couple of months and avoiding shaving.
“By the third day,” he wrote about his week of street life, “I looked so down and out commuters averted their eyes, old friends failed to recognize me, and at Faneuil Hall, as I walked by a table, a woman clutched her purse.”
Which week was more heartbreaking and devastating, life on the streets or his inmate stint two decades earlier?
“Working in the kitchen was a nauseating experience,” he wrote of the Deer Island jail.
“There were flies and roaches everywhere,” he added. “Garbage remained on the floor for days. … Paint peeled from overhead pipes into the pots where food was cooking. The small room off the kitchen where potatoes, carrots, and onions were stored also served as a home for one dog and a cat, which was nursing four kittens. When I saw the dog urinate on the potatoes one afternoon, I decided I would skip dinner that night.”
John Charles Thomas, always known as Jack, was born in Boston on Feb. 16, 1939, and grew up in Dorchester, the oldest of five siblings.
He wrote last year that his mother, Marie Montgomery Thomas, “raised five children and mopped floors nights at Filene’s” to supplement the meager income of his machinist father, Walter Thomas.
Their working-class home, however, always subscribed to four newspapers, “the Boston Post, the Globe, the Boston American, and the Daily Record.”
At English High School, from which he graduated in 1957, Mr. Thomas began a lifelong friendship with Bryant Rollins, who became a pioneering Black journalist at the Globe and an inspiration. “I almost fall into tears when I talk about him,” Mr. Thomas said for his friend’s obit in July.
They went to Northeastern, and Mr. Thomas first worked in the Globe newsroom as a copy boy in sports. But he left college before graduating to join the Marine Corps Reserve.
Then he was a reporter at the Everett Leader Herald & News-Gazette and the Haverhill Journal before joining the Globe in 1962.
Including college student efforts, his writing appeared in the Globe over the course of 63 years, from 1958 to 2021.
Mr. Thomas was a “police reporter, State House reporter, city editor, editorial writer, Washington correspondent, national correspondent, television critic, feature writer, and ombudsman,” he recalled last year.
He was particularly known for writing profiles that featured the likes of Julia Child or Dave McKenna, one of his favorite jazz musicians.
Mr. Thomas’s first marriage, to Emy Forrest Thomas, ended in divorce. She now lives in Boston and the couple had two daughters, Faith Tracy of Cambridge and Jennifer Rando of Fort Myers, Fla.
In 1992, he married Geri Denterlein. They met when she was editorial director at WBZ-TV.
“Jack was passionate about politics and racial justice. It became dinner conversation,” she said. “We always had dinner with candlelight. Jack was such a wonderful cook.”
He also was such an avid reader that when she went into labor for the birth of their son, John Patrick Thomas, Mr. Thomas brought along a book to the delivery room, she recalled. “I said, ‘What do you think you’re going to be doing?’ "
A service will be announced for Mr. Thomas, who in addition to his wife and three children leaves two sisters, Ramona Egan of Cape Coral, Fla., and Charlotte Lorandeau of Hanover; and six grandchildren.
“Our father was really our best friend and our confidant,” said Mr. Thomas’s son, who lives in Washington, D.C. “He taught us how to think, to question our own beliefs, and to be more compassionate and resilient people throughout our lives.”
With dwindling days left to live, Mr. Thomas asked his children to track down his Royal typewriter, which he had dropped off at a Boston store a couple of years ago. They found the store and an old Royal.
“On his last day that he had on this earth,” his son said, “we put the typewriter by his side and he was able to hear the clickety-clack of the Globe again.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.