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Suffolk police pioneer John Thomas dies

John Thomas was a community fixture, described by friends and family as always willing to help people in the boxing ring or on the streets.

A founding member of the Suffolk County Police Department, Thomas, of Bay Shore, died Saturday morning after a long illness, his family said. He was 90.

Born in Bay Shore, Thomas enlisted in the Navy in 1944 and was stationed in the Philippines and Pearl Harbor during World War II. He married the former Beverly Daniels, now 77, in 1950.

In 1951, Thomas joined the Village of Brightwaters Police Department as its first black officer. When he joined the county police in 1960, he was one of three black officers in the department. Later, he was detailed to the department's Community Outreach Bureau during a period of community unrest, son Gordon Thomas said.

"He once received a domestic violence call and when he knocked on the door, the woman said she asked for a cop, not a black man," he said. "We liked to say he was the Jackie Robinson of the police force."

Suffolk Legis. Ricardo Montano (D-Brentwood) first met Thomas in 1980, when he joined the county Human Rights Commission.

"There was a whole generation of people who struggled with intolerance, and John grew up in that," he said. "He played a big role in healing the divisions in our county."

Suffolk Police Officer Conrad Johnson said Thomas was instrumental in the founding of the Suffolk Police Athletic League, in which he coached generations of kids in boxing at the Brentwood Recreation Center.

"We always used to speculate just how old he was, because you couldn't tell - he moved like a panther," Johnson said. "Everyone, including me, wanted to learn how to box with Mr. Thomas. He was showing kids that they could do the right thing and that good things would happen to them."

Johnson, who had known Thomas since he was a child, said Thomas was involved with the Long Island Guardians Police Association and paved the way for black officers on the force.

"The black officers always looked up to him," Johnson said. "He always tried to help if we had problems - he was our mentor."

Thomas retired from the force in 1987, but remained involved with the PAL and his community. He served as director of security for the Bay Shore School District until 1998.

He was a longtime member of the Bethel AME Church in Bay Shore, a member of the choir.

He was predeceased by his son John Jr. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Beverly Thomas; son Gordon, 52; and daughters Vanessa, 57, and LaVerne, 41.

Funeral arrangements at Rose's Funeral Home in Bay Shore were pending.

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