FORT WORTH Jerry Thomas, a pioneering black broadcaster best-known for his work at Fort Worth-based KNOK/970 AM/107.5 FM and at KTVT/Channel 11, died Monday. He was 86.
Mr. Thomas was the first black host of a program at KTVT and one of the first in the Dallas-Fort Worth market. He also worked as a news reporter for the station.
Inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame in 2008, he cultivated a sense of community involvement for KNOK, inviting young people (including Star-Telegram associate editor and columnist Bob Ray Sanders) into the studio to record announcements. He designed social events for teenagers to participate in on weekends.
“He would charge them a quarter, but if the kids didn’t have a quarter, they could come in anyway,” his wife, Jessyl Thomas, recalled Tuesday. “It was just an outlet for them to participate on the weekend.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Mr. Thomas brought that spirit to local television, hosting What About People from 1970 to 1986 on KTVT, a 30-minute show that emphasized positive things happening in the black community, and featured young people singing and performing.
After leaving television, he worked in sales and as an account executive for radio stations including KHVN, the station currently broadcasting at 970 AM.
Born Jerome Lefede Thomas on May 11, 1927, in Fort Worth, he began grade school in Fort Worth. The family moved to Sacramento where he spent several years before they returned to Fort Worth. He graduated from I.M. Terrell High School in 1948.
“He was one of those persons that all the girls liked,” said his wife of 59 years. She attended Terrell at the same time but said they didn’t start dating until he finished college.
“But I was, I guess, the distant one. We’d never actually communicated with each other,” she said. But they were both in the Terrell choir, and she sang in a girls quartet and he in a boys quartet.
After graduation, Mr. Thomas moved to New Orleans, where he graduated from Dillard University in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in drama. During summer months, he sang with the historic Elegant Wings Over Jordan Choir, establishing himself as an outstanding lead tenor.
Mr. Thomas returned to Fort Worth and in 1955 was offered a job as a DJ at KNOK/970 AM, a black-oriented radio station. The FM station, 107.5, signed on in 1965, according to the History of Dallas-Fort Worth Radio and Television website.
Mr. Thomas was well-suited for broadcasting, with a smooth, mellow voice that Jessyl Thomas describes as like “chocolate flowing over ice cream.”
At KNOK, Mr. Thomas played host to touring acts such as the Supremes and James Brown, and spun records ranging from Elvis to jazz legend Duke Ellington. The station was aimed at a black audience, but it attracted many white fans as well, including Plano-bred singer Boz Scaggs and Dallas-reared blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, who once told the Star-Telegram that he used to listen to the station to hear blues artists and gospel shows.
“The reason the whites started playing rhythm and blues is because we’d picked up their audience,” Mr. Thomas told the Star-Telegram in 1996. “They didn’t want to hear [country song] Y’all Come all the time.”
Mr. Thomas recalled in the same story that local musical producer/promoter “Major Bill” Smith turned him on to a young performer named Chuck Berry.
Mr. Thomas eventually became program director of the station and its FM counterpart.
Mr. Thomas didn’t limit himself to broadcasting. He started the Lake Como Theater Guild in 1960 and later was one of the founders of the Sojourner Truth Theater Center, a local African-American theater group, where he directed several plays.
He was a co-founder of La Vida News, an influential Fort Worth-based black newspaper, and was the first black president of the Fort Worth Catholic Schools Diocese.
“I’ve known Jerry Thomas for many years,” said state District Judge Louis Sturns, who was “at a loss for words” when he was told about Thomas’ death Tuesday.
“I thought very highly of Jerry. He was a good man. He was very concerned about the city of Fort Worth and very active in issues related to the minority community.”
Mr. Thomas was a member of the National Association of Radio and TV Announcers and was named an Outstanding Citizen by the association.
He received an award for his work with the United Negro College Fund and was a life member of the NAACP. He was a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, and a member and past president of the Ambassadors of Fort Worth, a social and service organization.
In 2008, Tarrant County commissioners declared Oct. 26 “Jerry Thomas Day” in the county.
In addition to his wife, survivors include sons Jerome Thomas Jr. and Jeffrey Thomas, and a daughter, Jessica Thomas; three sisters; five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Staff writer Max Baker contributed to this report, which contains material from Star-Telegram archives.