HUNTSVILLE - Garth Thomas and Will Rogers had a great deal in common.
They never met a man they didn’t like.
And much like the noted entertainer and humourist, Thomas had a knack for making people like him, whether they would just hear his voice on the local radio airwaves or see him walking down the street of the town he loved so dearly.
Sadly the man everyone tuned in to hear on the radio every morning for more than 50 years, died last Wednesday after a long battle with cancer. He was 77.
For more than five decades, Thomas’s baritone voice had been extolling the virtues of the residents of this community over the airwaves with a touch of humility and a sense of civic pride.
Thomas had been an icon in local radio ever since he pulled into town on Canada Day in 1958.
“I fell in love with this town when I drove in here July 1, 1958 at about 1 a.m., when I came around that Lawrence Street curl and thought ‘What a town’. I have loved every second here,” he said during an interview with this newspaper in 2009.
His foray into radio began shortly after graduating from a broadcast journalism course from the then-named Ryerson Institute of Technology. He said that he was working at a station in Toronto when he received an offer to come work here from someone in his graduating class who had come to Huntsville to open CKAR that June.
However, his first stay in Cottage Country was cut short when the station manager told him there wasn’t enough work to keep him on and laid him off.
Thomas eventually found work at another station in Stratford as an on-air personality, but he soon received a call from the new station manager in Huntsville to come back to work in Huntsville.
He never left again.
He would eventually become station manager, but he would one day tell one of the station’s owners, Norris Mackenzie, Hugh Mackenzie’s father, that he didn’t feel like doing the station manager’s job anymore.
“I worked with him at the station, but I first knew Thomas when I was a teenager,” Hugh Mackenzie said. “He used to come to my dad’s cottage on Mary Lake and we’d go out in the boat together. He lived a full and active life in Huntsville and he threw his whole life into this town, both in sports and in the cultural community.”
Mike Greaves, who has been friends with Thomas for close to 30 years, called his late pal “a real character.”
“He got himself thrown into jail one time so he could do a broadcast from the cell, sometime between 1958 to 1960. He threw a brick through the police chief’s window just so he could be arrested. In fact, when he was in there, the night officer would share dinner with him, take him over the fire hall to sleep on the pool table as long as he promised to be back in jail before the chief came back in the morning. He just wanted to be different.”
After he quit as station manager, Thomas agreed to stay on to do sports and other programs while working full-time for the Muskoka Tourism Marketing Agency. But once more, fate would have something in mind for Thomas’s journalistic career.
After he had left the marketing agency Thomas wrote a story on the Huntsville Hawks lacrosse team, which caught the attention of Peter Rice, who was the publisher of the Huntsville Forester at the time. He offered him a job and Thomas started writing sports stories for the paper and the Forester’s vacation guide in the summertime.
About six months after starting with the Forester, the newspaper’s editor resigned so Rice asked Thomas to take over the editor’s position, which he gladly accepted.
“I stayed there for about 12 years and I enjoyed it. In fact, I loved it. It ended around the time Peter told me he was going to retire at 50 and I was already 50. So one day I told him I was leaving. But I was stupid to leave. Peter Rice was the best employer a person could ever have. He was by far the best person I worked for,” Thomas said in 2009.
Even though he had a full time job with the Forester, Thomas still continued working at CKAR as an on-air personality. “I continued to host a radio program for the station during this time. It was a piece of cake to do both.”
In 1976, the Eastern Broadcasting Co. Ltd. purchased a number of central Ontario radio stations, including CKAR. Thomas continued to work under the new ownership, which received approval to change the station’s call letters to CFBK in 1977.
Thomas had never been what most people come to think of as a typical sports radio announcer, who simply reads his copy into the microphone. Thomas’ sfolksy style of reporting the news struck a chord with his listeners, who tuned in to hear his recognizable voice for more than five decades, including more than 30 years spent as ‘Santa Claus’ listening to young wishes as the calls went into the station during the Christmas Season.
Reporting wasn’t Thomas’s only love. In 1988, Thomas Thomas was appointed returning officer with Elections Canada for the federal riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka, a position he held until 1995, overseeing two successful federal elections and one national referendum.
It was during this position that he began his friendship with Greaves, who was hired by Thomas in 1988 as assistant returning officer.
Thomas also served for a time as president of the Huntsville Rotary Club for a term and was a recipient of the Paul Harris Fellowship Award, one of Rotary’s highest honours.
He could also be found playing key roles in all of the communities’ major Rotary Club Broadway shows as well as in local plays.
He was also a long-time member of the Royal Canadian Legion Brach 232, Huntsville. In recent years Thomas has been inducted into the Huntsville Sports Hall of Fame as a builder. The Town of Huntsville Parks and recreation committee recently named the sound booth in the Jack Bionda Arena the Garth Thomas Booth in recognition of his many hockey and lacrosse broadcasts.
With the arrival of the Winter Games Olympic Torch in Huntsville in 2010, Thomas was one of 25 Huntsville citizens honored at a ceremony hosted by the Town of Huntsville.
In retrospect, Thomas said in 2009 that he has had many careers. But being in Huntsville has been his only career highlight.
“I mean that. Just being connected with this town is it for me,” he was quoted as saying back then.
Thomas called it quits on his radio career on Oct. 19, 2009 saying that the industry had started to pass him by and he was tired.
A lifelong bachelor, Thomas had no family, but Greaves said the residents of Huntsville “are his immediate family.”
“For me, the greatest legacy he has left is his willingness and ability to promote and give a special time to so many people in this town. He loved to entertain and to be colourful. He had no ego whatsoever. If there was a young boy or girl who had done something special in sports, maybe an average player, you did something noteworthy, Thomas noticed you on the radio. They will always have that bit of memory, thanks to Thomas.”
Visitation for Thomas Thomas will be tonight, Wednesday, starting at 7 p.m. at Mitchell Funeral Home. There will be a celebration of Thomas’s life on Thursday at the Huntsville legion at 11 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, Thomas wanted people to make donations in his memory directly to the Huntsville District Memorial Hospital, the Huntsville fire department and Hospice Huntsville.