By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
As he talks, raccoons can be heard scurrying about the attic. A powerful, almost unbearable stench fills the humid house, the result of nearly a decade of filth that has never been challenged with a sponge. Thomas breaks out in laughter when asked why he doesn't clean the house.
"That's a good question. Actually it wasn't this bad until I started this wonderful journey," he says, straying into the hallway to explain why there's a gaping hole in the ceiling. "A pipe separated and let water into the insulation, and the insulation got heavy and it fell through. Now my raccoons are up there, and occasionally they knock stuff down."
The condition of the rest of the house ranges from similar to worse. A stairway leading to the second floor is virtually impassable, its thinly carpeted steps cluttered with extension cords, telephones, and discarded shoes. Thomas uses two upstairs bedrooms to store mounds of used computer equipment which he buys at bankruptcy sales. A bathroom door is ajar and the light doesn't work. From the darkness, the unmistakable stench of urine rises from a broken john and escapes into the hallway.
Downstairs in the kitchen, the refrigerator appears rusted, but is really covered in a brownish blanket of grime. A Kmart Pharmacy "poison hotline" magnet clings to the refrigerator door, underneath a Mylar "Happy Birthday" clown balloon that looms from atop the freezer. The window over the sink, like most others in the house, is covered with tin foil.
A neighbor says that in recent months he has been approached by several people looking for Thomas, including sanitation inspectors, officials from the Dallas County Mental Health/Mental Retardation center, and Thomas' youngest son, James. When they showed up at Thomas' door, the neighbor says, Thomas refused to come out. (MHMR officials declined to comment on whether Thomas is a client, and members of Thomas' family could not be reached for comment.)
Nearby residents say they worry about Thomas' safety--and their own.
"He's just a nuisance and he's dangerous," says a neighbor. "I don't think he's a particularly vicious person, but if push came to shove, he'd hurt you."
The time he does not spend on household chores, Thomas instead uses trying to sell his dream of vending machines and scholarships to local school officials. But there are some gaps in the picture Thomas paints of himself.
For starters, his Great American Dream Machine is not much of a nonprofit organization, except in Thomas' mind. And there aren't any Biz Kids merrily raking in money and business experience by selling candy and soft drinks.
Thomas claims he's already spent $60,000 of his own money pursuing his vision, but where that money might have come from is difficult to discern.
Born in 1935, Thomas received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Penn State in 1957, and a master's degree in electrical engineering from Drexel University, also in Pennsylvania, in 1961. Thomas says he moved to Texas from Pennsylvania in 1965 to take a job with Texas Instruments. (Texas Instruments spokesman Neil McGlone confirms that Thomas worked at the company's manufacturing operations division plant in Lewisville, but McGlone would not confirm the dates of employment.)
Thomas also claims he once worked for Rockwell International and was stationed in "Arabia," where he became best friends with the chief justice of the country's Supreme Court.
In 1954, Thomas married his wife, Lillie, and in 1985 they divorced. Lillie left the marriage with control of the majority of the couple's possessions, including various stock options that were in the names of their four children.
Lillie died two years later, according to Thomas. Some people who have gotten to know Thomas believe Lillie's death sent his life into a downward spiral.
But divorce records indicate that Thomas' personal problems may have started in the mid-1980s. In her divorce petition, Lillie claimed that the marriage broke down because of "discord or conflict of personalities." The court also agreed with Lillie's claim that, by 1985, Thomas had "dissipated $170,000 of the estate within the last two years," although the court record provides no details of what happened with the money.
When Lillie's name comes up in conversation, Thomas briefly forgets his obsession with minority scholarships. To this day, Thomas remembers the day when he and Lillie started dating back in Shellsville, Pennsylvania. It was love at first sight.
"She was standing back at the sandbox at the one-room schoolhouse. She was tall and thin, with long brunette hair. She asked me to the sophomore dance, and we went to all the dances and football games afterwards," he says, adding that the two didn't have much in common except that they were in the same place at the same time.
They got married just after high school. Thomas went on to become an engineer, and Lillie a teacher. After the couple relocated to Texas, Lillie landed a job at DISD, though district officials could not confirm when or where. Her career as a teacher helps explain Thomas' current fixation on public education.
Thomas never mentions the divorce when speaking of his marriage, but he says Lillie's absence has taken a heavy toll on him.