By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"I remember thinking that'll take me six months to get over it, and it wound up taking six years," Thomas says, bowing his head and lowering his voice almost to a whisper. "It's an acceptance problem." More than a decade later, Thomas is apparently still having problems accepting reality. Dallas County court records show that he is prone to aggression and suffers from "severe depression."
In 1994, Thomas pleaded no contest to one class-A misdemeanor count of assault, and was ordered to pay $660 in court fines and undergo 12 months of supervision.
The charge stemmed from an October 1, 1994, verbal confrontation between Thomas and an employee of the Kroger grocery store in Richardson. During an argument with employee Abel "Rocky" Acosta in the store's parking lot, Thomas grabbed Acosta's necktie in an attempt to elude approaching police officers, according to court records.
When he was arrested, the retired engineer had $100 in the bank, $20 in his pocket, and $2,500 in monthly expenses, records show.
Now, Thomas can barely manage to keep a roof over his head, or a clean shirt on his back. DISD employees who have encountered Thomas say he has a severe hygiene problem that often precedes him. His aroma, combined with his abusive descriptions of African-Americans and his time-consuming demands, makes it difficult for them to understand his true intentions.
"In front of our employees, who are African-American, he refers to our kids as 'my ghetto kids,'" says one employee who has dealt with Thomas. "He's come to look at our records for three days, all in the same outfit. [We] won't sit in the same room with him because of his odor."
At 7:45 a.m. on Thursday, August 28, a "meeting" of the Lincoln High School faculty advisory committee convenes inside a tiny conference room next to Principal Napoleon Lewis' office. Phil Thomas, wearing his oil-stained pants for the third day in a row, is seated at the head of the table next to math teacher and committee chairman C.B. Jackson. Three teachers occupy the opposite end of the table, wondering why, exactly, they have been summoned.
They are here, it turns out, because Thomas has asked for a meeting to pitch the Great American Dream Machine, and school officials have decided to oblige.
After Jackson makes a brief opening statement, Thomas starts explaining to the educators, once again, his vision of scholarships, vending machines, and enterprising students.
He is interrupted when librarian Cheryl Mohr asks who is taking minutes of the meeting.
"This isn't a faculty advisory committee meeting as far as the school is concerned. It's a faculty advisory meeting to take care of some of the problems we've had with this fund-raising effort," Jackson informs the group, tilting his head in Thomas' direction on the word "this."
Like good pupils, the teachers gaze at Thomas intently as he hands out copies of the school's 1995-'96 extracurricular activities budget. He explains that too much money is being spent on student activities, like the choir's trip to London and especially sports.
"London? What are you talking about? Did they go to London, too?" Mohr asks in a surprised tone, momentarily guessing that Thomas knows something she doesn't. After reassuring the teachers that he knows how every dime in the school is spent, Thomas admits it's possible the students just stopped over in London on their way to Vienna.
"The choir performed in Vienna, Austria," Jackson says, pulling off his glasses and squeezing the bridge of his nose as if a migraine were forming in his head.
England. Austria. That's not the point, says Thomas. The point is that the school is wasting money while students need scholarships, and they need them now.
Besides, he's been through this whole discussion with former DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery to no avail, and he wants action. Now.
The teachers gawk in amazement as Thomas proceeds to replay the conversation, real or imagined, that he had with Woolery.
"I asked Chad Woolery why there are no scholarships, and he said, 'We don't give scholarships,' and I said to myself, 'You lying son of a bitch,'" says Thomas, who abruptly stops talking and exhales a high-pitched cackle. The windowless room seems to be getting warmer, and the teachers' patience thinner. What does this man want, anyway?
For the next half-hour, Thomas explains what he's been trying to do for more than two years: let his "Biz Kids" start their own businesses by managing vending machines and use the profits for academic scholarships, minus his 50-percent cut. And he wants the teachers to convince Napoleon Lewis to OK the plan.
What the teachers don't know, however, is that Thomas has spent the past two years explaining his plan to Lewis and every administrator all the way up to the DISD Board of Trustees. So far, nobody has been able to figure out how to make the plan work, or how to make Thomas go away.
DISD General Counsel Dennis Eichelbaum confirms that Thomas continues to make weekly, sometimes daily, requests for information that are sapping the time and energy of his staff.
"Mr. Thomas' constant barrage of requests seem to never get answered as fast as he would like them to, nor do his demands," says Eichelbaum, whose tone of voice indicates a high degree of annoyance with the subject.