As the Homer community grappled with the loss of a longtime volunteer firefighter and community activist, many of them packed like sardines in a can into the Homer Mariner Theatre at the high school on Sunday to attend a memorial for Gary Thomas.
A former general manager of KBBI public radio, former editor and publisher of the Homer News and volunteer firefighter for more than 40 years, Thomas was found dead last week in a home off East End Road near McNeil Canyon School after a water heater explosion.
Kachemak Emergency Services responded to the incident, which is now being investigated by the State Fire Marshal’s office.
In the meantime, residents of the lower Kenai Peninsula who knew, worked with or volunteered with Thomas have been left to grieve. Sunday’s memorial was quickly organized and was opened to the public.
On approaching the school, attendees were met with the looming sight of an American flag hung suspended between two ladder trucks from local fire departments, framing the entrance to the school.
Mourners filed up the steps to Homer High School, greeted by somber firefighters and medics who lined the stairs in both directions. The doors were held open by members of the Homer Police Department.
The first to speak at the memorial were KES Chief Bob Cicciarella, Ernie Misewicz from the Fire Investigators Association and Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mark Kirko. They each praised Thomas’ work ethic and recounted memories of his time on the job, especially his help with younger volunteers.
Kirko performed a ceremony to honor Thomas on his “last recall to quarters.” Thomas’ family was presented with an American flag by members of an honor guard, and Kirko rang a large, silver fire service bell several times to signify that Thomas’ time as a firefighter had ended.
Next came the final dispatch call for Thomas. Following the long tone that signals an emergency call being made, a dispatcher’s voice came crackling over the loud speaker in the auditorium.
“Firefighter Thomas — dispatch,” she said. “Firefighter Thomas — dispatch.”
“Having heard no response from firefighter Gary Thomas, we know that firefighter Thomas has responded to his last call for the Homer and KESA fire departments,” she continued. “Firefighter Thomas served the citizens of the Homer community for over 40 years. We appreciate your dedication and your family’s sacrifices during the time Gary was a firefighter. Firefighter Thomas has now become a guardian who will watch out for firefighters as they respond to emergencies. Gary Thomas completed his final tour of duty as a firefighter on January 14, 2020.”
Voice actor and radio personality Tom Bodett, a friend of Thomas, provided the welcome and closing comments at the memorial.
“When Laura (Patty, Thomas’ wife), she said that they were struggling with this event and that what they needed was a Gary,” Bodett said, his voice breaking. “That Gary was the one … you could always count on to do these things. So to be asked to be that Gary is one of the most — one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received and the greatest bits of respect I’ve ever felt.”
While he spoke near the beginning, one of the balloons gathered at the ceiling of the theatre (which were to be released at the end) popped, deafeningly. A chorus of laughter rumbled through the crowd.
“You know Gary,” Bodett joked. “He’s never gonna stop.”
Bodett spoke of the years he spent working with Thomas on the radio program “End of the Road,” and of what their friendship meant to him.
“So, April 11, 1951 to Jan. 15, 2020. That’s quite a slice of life, really, when you look at it,” Bodett said. “But life isn’t pie, and there’s never quite enough. And now there’s this big Gary Thomas shaped hole in our pies.”
Also speaking and reminiscing about Thomas was Robert Purcell, another longtime firefighter and recently the interim chief at Homer Volunteer Fire Department. Both he and Peter Norton recounted tales from their college days with Thomas. The three men all took a trip to Alaska in the 1970s that was the catalyst for all of their eventual moves to Homer.
Thomas was the first to make it official and moved to Homer in 1979. Norton said he got an envelope in the mail some time later from Thomas. Inside were plane tickets.
Close friend Tom Laing recalled raising his children at the same time as Thomas and his first wife, Gail. It was essentially a coparenting relationship and the two families became very close, he said.
Kathleen Gustafson of KBBI, Darrel Oliver and Carolyn Norton, daughter of Peter Norton, read poems, letters and stories submitted by friends and family members. Tom Early spoke of Thomas’ dedication to volunteering through the local Rotary club, and current Homer News Editor Michael Armstrong spoke of Thomas’ commitment to the newspaper and to all the employees who flowed through its doors during his tenure.
Marie McCarty of Kachemak Heritage Land Trust talked about Thomas’ skill as an auctioneer. He was sought after locally for presenting at everything from the annual fundraising gala for the land trust to spelling bees at local elementary schools.
McCarty noted his skill at getting people to bid to help raise money for community organizations, while still keeping things lighthearted and fun. She noted that she’d even been tricked into outbidding herself on occasion when Thomas was at the mic.
Homer Mayor Ken Castner put his own auctioneering skills to the test while he spoke about Thomas, auctioning off a record to the crowd. He got the bids up to $50, then took a break to say some words about Thomas. Then he jumped back in.
“So anyway, we’re at $80?” he said.
“Gary had a tremendous amount of grace and good humor,” Castner continued. “And grace is something that’s divine and we all should work toward, but good humor — I mean, really, if you really have good humor, you can earn a living with it.”
To round out the celebration of Thomas and all he meant to the community, Homer Director of Choirs Kyle Schneider led the entire theatre of people in a rousing rendition of the song Thomas had stipulated was to be played when he died: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The Homer Ukulele Group accompanied the crowd and the white and silver balloons were released from the ceiling while people sang.
It was noted at the memorial that Thomas meant many things to many people, and that the sum of his contributions to the Homer community could not possibly be addressed in those two hours. Paper and pens waited for attendees outside in the Homer High School Commons, where they were invited to write down their own favorite stories or memories of Thomas to be shared with his family.
If the countless hours of work, fire response service and volunteerism are to be taken at face value, Thomas left the Homer community a markedly better place than he found it.
The final words from the last dispatch call for Thomas seemed to sum it up best.
“Firefighter Thomas, rest easy,” the dispatcher’s voice spoke over the crowd. “We’ll take it from here.”