By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On at least two occasions, officials from DISD and DCCCD say, security officers have had to escort Thomas from school grounds after he became too disruptive and threatening. In August, DISD employees were advised to hang up on Thomas if he continued to yell and swear at them on the telephone.
But Thomas has not been deterred.
At 61, the retired engineer has no responsibilities, little money, and very few friends. His four children are grown and reportedly don't visit him often. His wife of 31 years divorced him in 1985, then died. With unlimited free time on his hands, Thomas fills the void by working until 2 or 3 in the morning, typing memos and faxing his enemies.
He works from his North Dallas home, where the roof is collapsing and a band of raccoons has taken up residence in the attic. Thomas, who has been cited for multiple city sanitation violations since 1986, says he hasn't cleaned the house in nine years.
His home is the reeking bane of neighbors, who have filed complaints with the city expressing frustration with the mess. "I'm concerned for the safety of people who go inside the house," says one neighbor, who didn't want to be identified for fear that Thomas will retaliate. "You never know with people like that when they're going to go off."
Thomas says he is well aware of his reputation with his neighbors, and with school officials who have yet to jump on the Great American Dream Machine bandwagon. That makes him all the more determined to continue on his warpath.
"Phil has one of his own bad qualities," says Thomas, referring to himself in the third person, as he often does. "And that is when he hears the word 'can't,' it's like waving a red flag in front of a bull."
The 6400 block of Prestoncrest in North Dallas, just minutes away from the Galleria mall, is lined with elegant brick homes with immaculately trimmed bushes and mowed lawns.
Then there's the Thomas residence.
Weeds more than a foot high have overgrown the front yard. A crumbling walkway leads to a porch cluttered with tools, a rusting mound of chains, various metal pipes, and a stack of water-soaked insulation. An old three-speed Schwinn is parked between a Die Hard battery and a cup full of used spark plugs.
Four aluminum ladders are propped against the roof, curiously stationed around the house and plainly visible from the street. They form an archway, of sorts, leading to the backyard, where three broken-down cars sit on the barren dirt and a rusting jungle gym swaggers in the breeze. A broken fan resides with an old drinking fountain, a dishwasher, and a large machine called a "Pitney Bowes Photographer," its top pried open and its guts exposed.
The house itself is in similar straits. Wooden shingles on the back half of the roof have fallen in clumps, leaving gaping holes that expose the inside of the house.
Since 1986, inspectors from the city's Street, Sanitation and Code Enforcement department have cited Thomas nine times for various infractions, most involving neighborhood complaints about high weeds, illegal parking, and garbage. Of those complaints, one is still open, says Cherita Johnson, the western division manager for the department.
One neighbor claims the city could do more, and isn't willing to push Thomas to clean up his house.
"The city is very scared of him. That's why we can't get anything done," says the neighbor. "Those stepladders have been there forever. They're a poor attempt to convince city inspectors that he's working on that house."
On a Tuesday afternoon, Thomas stands inside a first-floor room that he uses as an office. It is packed with dozens of pieces of used computer equipment, mismatched desks, copy machines, and filing cabinets. A "Milano" poster boasting of Italy's "Galleria Vittorio Emanuele" hangs on one wall. Another is covered with antiquated world atlas wallpaper. A wooden patch is nailed to the ceiling to keep out water from the leaky roof.
Thomas is doing what he says he does every day until 2 or 3 in the morning--hovering over a fax machine, pushing angry letters into the lives of various Dallas-area public employees. An NFL notebook filled with fax numbers rests at the side of Thomas' weapon. A flashlight and screwdrivers lie nearby.
Time spent with Thomas consists of listening to his long-winded complaints about impossible bureaucracies, their simple-minded employees, and all the other idiots out there who just don't understand him. Despite the presence of strangers, Thomas wanders through the house, muttering to himself, occasionally slipping into conversations with people who are not present.
"God! I can't stand people who lie to me. The worst thing you can do to Phil Thomas is put garbage in his computer," he says, staring down at a fax somebody apparently sent to him.
Redirecting his attention to the conversation at hand, Thomas explains that two problems continue to frustrate his plan to save the ghetto kids.
"I kept believing that when these people showed interest [in the Great American Dream Machine] it would happen. The second thing is I have this reoccurring health problem that would wipe me out for two months," he says, meaning the depression that he doesn't like to talk about. "But I really do think I have DISD boxed in. I don't think they are going to ignore me this time."