By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
On this particular Monday afternoon, Phil Thomas is clean-shaven and neatly dressed. At least by his standards.His short-sleeved shirt appears to have been recently pressed; its blue-and-white squares widen slightly as they descend over his belly toward a pair of oil-spotted polyester pants. An intractable row of long black hairs rises up from Thomas' left cheek, apparently missed by the morning's shave. Another overlooked patch swirls about the vast underside of his chin. His graying mane is slicked back over his ears in a bulky heap, evidently without the aid of pomade.
Thomas' 6-foot-1-inch frame fills one side of a green vinyl booth inside the Preston Road Denny's in North Dallas. His uniquely blunt views on the educational problems plaguing minority kids in Dallas, delivered in a volatile voice, command the curiosity of neighboring diners. They can't help but listen, though they don't join the conversation.
"You want to know who the enemy of the black youth is?" Thomas asks, his blue, bloodshot eyes darting beneath a pair of thick, black eyebrows. "It's the black parents. It doesn't take too long to figure that out."
Thomas continues, expanding the list of enemies he sees threatening children. His voice rises and his sentences run together. The conversation of two nearby African-American men is disturbed by the erupting opinions of this vociferous white man.
"It's the attitude of black leadership that black people alone are going to solve the problem," Thomas says, referring to South Dallas, which he broadly labels a ghetto. "It's not going to budge until the lousy, stinking, rotten attitude of the black community changes."
Thomas is of the mind that the future of African-American youth is like a basketball that black educators and their parents are slam-dunking down society's drain. He believes that black children--he calls them his "ghetto kids"--spend too much time jamming and jawing on the basketball court, when they desperately need a basic education and vocational training. The kids aren't university material, he says, but they certainly have enough brains to hold down decent jobs that pay a living wage.
At the same time, Thomas says, Dallas-area educators are dropping the ball in their obligation to prepare students for the real world. The incompetence of the public school system, combined with a woeful lack of financial resources, is a recipe for social disaster.
Fortunately, Thomas has the answer, and the answer is used vending machines.
Describing himself as the "best one-man think tank in town," Thomas is the founder of the Great American Dream Machine, a nonprofit organization that he hopes will make the future brighter.
With a staff of one, Thomas wants to save his "ghetto kids" by turning them into "Biz Kids." He envisions public-school students running their own businesses by managing school vending machines, which Thomas would purchase used. He would also lend the students his own business expertise, and use of the salvaged computers he has stockpiled at his North Dallas house.
In no time at all, the kids would learn the ways of the business world and make a profit, half of which would go to scholarships and half into Thomas' pocket. The kids would get jobs, and Thomas would earn a little extra income to supplement his dwindling pension.
For the last two and a half years, Thomas has been trying to peddle his vision to Dallas educators, offering bundles of money to elicit their cooperation. But they refuse to cooperate.
School officials say they have given Thomas numerous opportunities to present his ideas, but have failed to find a way to satisfy him. In part, that's because Thomas can't find a way to make his plan seem feasible. And he isn't exactly the well-funded business man he claims to be. In fact, he's quite the opposite.
Spurned by the educational "gods," Thomas has plugged in a fax machine and launched a continuing campaign against employees of the Dallas Independent School District, the Dallas County Community College District, and various county and city employees. Almost daily, Thomas deluges officialdom with paper--pleas, promises, and dire prognostications of what will happen if his ideas are not embraced.
Often, his weapon of choice is public information requests--often frivolous--that school administrators are obligated to respond to by state and federal open-records laws.
DISD and DCCCD officials say Thomas has forced them to waste countless hours of staff time and their employees have grown weary of his sometimes abusive demeanor.
When Thomas isn't taking his frustrations out through the fax machine, he's getting into verbal and physical altercations about town, according to Dallas County court records.
Since 1995, Thomas has been charged with one misdemeanor count of assault and one misdemeanor count of making a terroristic threat. The latter incident involved Thomas' stated desire to drop an atom bomb on the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce, thereby obliterating it and the ghetto. Chamber officials say the threat came after Thomas spent more than a year attending and disrupting their meetings.
Thomas, who has informed court officials that he suffers from "severe depression," has been ordered to have no contact with the Chamber and is currently on probation.