A Lakewood legend has died. First black woman to be a Washington mayor 'demanded excellence'

Lakewood Mayor Dr. Claudia Thomas laughs during a community reception in her honor Sunday, Sept. 17, 2006 at Pierce College in Lakewood, Wash. Thomas was honored for her lifetime commitment to public service and being the first female black mayor in the state. She passed away May 12 at age 87.
Lakewood Mayor Dr. Claudia Thomas laughs during a community reception in her honor Sunday, Sept. 17, 2006 at Pierce College in Lakewood, Wash. Thomas was honored for her lifetime commitment to public service and being the first female black mayor in the state. She passed away May 12 at age 87.

Lakewood's Claudia Thomas, the first African American woman in Washington to hold a mayor's seat, died Saturday of complications from Alzheimer’s. She was 87.

This week Thomas was remembered as a trailblazer. She was a lifelong educator who became a civic legend when the city was still in its infancy and helped establish a tradition of funding youth and human-services programs.

Friends and family also remembered the many sides of her: warm but fierce, nurturing but strict, an enforcer and a public servant. Above all, she was passionate about serving her community, her church and her family and improving the lives of young people.

"This woman was feisty," said former Lakewood City Councilwoman Andie Gernon, who became close friends with Thomas when the two were asked to launch a social-services effort to meet the needs of Lakewood residents. That group became the Lakewood Community Collaboration.

That pluckiness was apparent when she convinced comedian Bill Cosby to come to Lakewood to speak to students in 2007 — before allegations publicly surfaced that he sexually assaulted women.

When city staff told her they couldn't pin him down on a date, she tracked him down during a show at a casino in Shelton and ambushed him in his dressing room.

At that time, his appearance at Clover Park Technical College was a huge hit with children and parents.

"She could be absolutely serene and appropriate, but she also had a feisty streak," Gernon remembered. "She was very passionate. She had clever sayings — for instance, if someone was reluctant to do something she’d say, 'You can't push a wet noodle up a hill.' She was a great organizer, a big picture thinker. She was innovative."

Thomas was born and raised in North Carolina. She received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from that state's Bennett College and lived there with her husband, Harry, when their son, Bryan, was born. In the 1960s the couple moved to Lakewood where they had their daughter, Lisa.

Before she spent 42 years working in education, Thomas was a contributing writer for Ebony Magazine, Bryan Thomas said.

She earned her graduate degree in education administration from Seattle University and also earned her doctorate degree, her son said. She started teaching as a high school chemistry teacher in Kent and rose through the ranks. At the time she retired, she was an assistant superintendent in Bremerton. Her husband passed away in the 1980s.

"She was very caring. I can remember our house never being empty from people stopping by," Bryan Thomas said. "Her biggest deal was she fed everybody. Nobody left her house hungry. She was very into serving her community and her church and her organizations that she belonged to."

She was pulled to civic life and served on the first City Council in Lakewood in 1995, shortly before it was officially incorporated as a city. She served on the council until 2011 and was mayor from 2006-07.

To this day, Thomas' fingerprints are all over Lakewood city government.

Under her leadership, the City Council dedicated 1 percent of its general fund to contract with agencies that assist needy residents, with a focus on youth. That started in 1997 and continues today. Thomas also created the Human Services Collaboration.

She also initiated the appointment of two youth advisers to the City Council in September 1997, which later became the Youth Council and today has 22 members.

Working with youth was among her chief passions, and she had high standards for the young people in her midst, especially on the youth advisory council.

"I was in a meeting where a kid arrived late with his girlfriend and she said, 'You're off. You're through. You can't come here and be late,'" Gernon remembered. "She expected excellence. She demanded excellence, and she gave excellence herself."

Thomas and Gernon also created Lakewood’s Promise, an organization supporting the America’s Promise Alliance partnership to improve the lives of youth. The year Thomas retired from the council, America's Promise named Lakewood one of the 100 best communities for youth for a fifth consecutive year.

While she was pioneering and hard-charging , she also was warm and knew how to get people on board with her ideas, Gernon said.

She would bake biscuits and bring them to meetings. She was effusive in praise for people. She mentored other women coming up in politics and paved a path for other black female leaders, including Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards. Both were longtime members of Allen AME church in Tacoma's Hilltop, and Woodards said she spent many Sundays at Thomas' house laughing, playing pinochle and eating Sunday dinner.

Thomas didn't mince words, Woodards said.

"Claudia is going to tell you like it is. She's not going to sugarcoat it," Woodards said.

The last time the two saw each other at church was shortly after Woodards was elected mayor, she said. Thomas was in a wheelchair.

"As her health started to decline she didn't always remember people, but she knew exactly who I was and exactly what to say to me," Woodards said. "She looked at me and told me she was so proud of me, and that meant a whole lot to me."

Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson called Thomas a tireless advocate for youth and education, a mother figure in the community.

"You could count on Claudia to be out in the community and know what people were thinking, because she was always in motion," Anderson said.

And at every City Council meeting, Anderson remembered, Thomas would slip him some candy.

“That showed the kind of person she was,” he said. “It’s a small thing, but it left a warm feeling.”

A memorial for Thomas will be held June 2 at 10 a.m. at Harrison Preparatory School in Lakewood. A reception will follow at the McGavick Conference Center.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud