The forgotten man

In mid-September, The Dallas Morning News reported the demise of a giant in Texas public education.

Joseph Jones "J.J." Pearce, 88, the superintendent "who guided the Richardson school district's transformation from a single rural campus into one of the top urban school systems in the state," had died, reporter Selwyn Crawford noted.

In 31 years of service as Richardson superintendent--Pearce retired in 1977, at the age of 70--he had attained the status of a mythic figure, "Mr. RISD." A Richardson high school already carries Pearce's name. His death prompted the current RISD superintendent to shut down all district schools at noon on the day of Pearce's funeral.

"He was a great gentleman," superintendent Vernon Johnson told the News' Crawford. "He really built the entire school district, built the foundation for the district we have today.

"We want to honor him," Johnson said, explaining his decision to call off classes, "and also I don't think we can find enough substitutes to fill in for the hundreds of employees who will want to attend the funeral."

Crawford's story noted Pearce's influence in public education across the state, as well as his involvement in civic organizations such as the Richardson Chamber of Commerce and the Richardson Rotary Club. "He's just an icon," said Johnson. "I'm glad I got to know him personally and professionally."

The September 11 obituary also contained the paper's only reference to the cause of Pearce's demise--and even that was brief. The former superintendent, Crawford wrote, "died Sunday of injuries he suffered in a car accident Tuesday."

But in the rush to eulogize J.J. Pearce, the paper made no mention whatsoever of a critical and tragic fact: Pearce was not the only victim in the accident. The crash on the morning of September 5 involved two cars--and also claimed the life of Brian Keith Thomas, a 25-year-old with a promising future.

Also unmentioned in the News' coverage: the police report lists Pearce's failure to yield while making a turn as the primary cause of the accident.

Brian Thomas was a computer operator at Northern Telecom, a polite young man who was studying to complete his college degree while working full time.

At 9:30 a.m. on September 5, Thomas was in Richardson, driving his white 1993 Mercury Cougar XR-7, his pride and joy (it carried the vanity license plates "MY COOG"). He was heading east on West Campbell Road, heading toward its intersection with Waterview. The light was green.

Witnesses told police he was speeding, going 50 mph in the 40-mile zone, as he approached the intersection. But that would not have been a problem had J.J. Pearce, driving his 1989 Cadillac Fleetwood, not tried to make a left-hand turn onto Waterview from a westbound lane of Campbell Road.

According to the police report, Pearce turned in front of Thomas' Cougar. Notes the report: "Officers investigation revealed that driver #1 [Pearce] failed to yield right of way to driver #2 [Thomas] while turning left." The report lists "failed to yield ROW-turning left" as the sole item under "factors/conditions contributing" to the accident in the investigator's opinion. Under "Other factors/conditions may or may not have contributed," the investigator listed "speeding--over limit" by Brian Thomas.

The Cadillac slammed into the Cougar, sending it off the road, through a fence and into a tree. Pearce's car, which also carried his 14-year-old grandson, spun and struck a light pole.

Before being rushed to Presbyterian Hospital, the police report says, Pearce told investigators he saw Thomas' car, but thought he had time to make the left turn safely.

Thomas, who had been wearing his seat belt, was unconscious. Taken to Parkland Hospital, he died at 11:30 p.m.

The News noted what happened to him only in a 90-word "news briefs" item two days later. The paper reported: "A Forney man died late Tuesday from injuries he received in a two-car accident in Richardson earlier in the day." The brief misidentified Brian Keith Thomas as "Thomas Brian Keith"--and never connected J.J. Pearce by name to the accident, noting only that "Mr. Keith" was injured when a car driven by "an 88-year-old man" failed to yield while making a turn. It added: "Police say the case will be referred to a grand jury to determine whether the elderly driver should face any charges, as is routine in fatality accidents." The case, of course, never got that far. Pearce died on Sunday. (His grandson was treated and released on the day of the accident.)

Thomas' parents got the news about four hours after the accident. They rushed to Parkland Hospital, but their son never regained consciousness.

Thomas' death prompted an outpouring of sympathy from the family church, Forney Baptist; friends at Northern Telecom, where both Brian and his mother worked; and the many who knew them in Forney. But the family remains bitter and sad that the News--and local TV stations that covered the accident--either ignored the death of their son, or treated it as an afterthought.

"I've got nothing against Mr. Pearce," says Roy Thomas, Brian's father. "Mr. Pearce probably was a great man. But my son might have been just as great--if he had a chance to live that long.

"Brian was somebody too."
Asked to discuss the News' treatment of the accident, reporter Crawford said "I can't talk to you--bye"--and hung up. News editors did not return Observer phone calls.

Roy Thomas, a Vietnam veteran who served in the army for 12 years, is partially disabled from military injuries, but works when he can as a construction machinery mechanic. Iris Thomas is a senior administrative assistant at Northern Telecom's Bell Northern Research division in Richardson. They live in a modest middle-class neighborhood in Forney, the small town east of Dallas that is best known for its antique stores along Highway 80. The couple had two boys. Brian was the oldest; Joseph is 21.

In high school, Brian served as manager of the football team for three years and worked at a local grocery store. School administrators remember him as an average student and a good kid--earnest, hard-working, and polite.

After graduating in 1988, he went to work at Northern Telecom. He started out at $6.50 an hour, changing light bulbs. Enrolling at Richland College, he steadily moved up in the company, to a $38,000-a-year computer position.

Northern Telecom senior technician Jimmie P. Burnett, who hired Thomas at the company, says, "He was an extremely fine young man. If you ever asked anything of him, he'd go to extremes--above and beyond the call of duty.

"He helped with the blood drives; he helped with the food drives; he helped with the motorcycle rodeos for the Special Olympics. "He was a young man coming up, who would have been a civic leader himself. You can't say enough about him. We told him, 'Brian, go get that college degree--one day you may come back as our boss.'"

Burnett said he called the News to complain about its handling of Brian Thomas' death, but that his complaint was treated lightly. "You know how the Morning News takes it--'Eh, we've noted what you said.'"

A 5' 11", 218-pound man who studied martial arts, Brian moved into his own apartment early this year, but returned regularly. "He came out here every weekend, and he checked on us to see if we needed anything," says Roy Thomas. "We went to the movies every Saturday or Sunday."

Roy, who has suffered an assortment of health problems, says Brian helped him and his wife out on many occasions, sometimes financially. He recalls that Brian once asked if he had made his father proud. "Son, I'm so proud of you," Roy responded, "you're up on a pedestal."

The Thomases' attorney, Lynn Estep, told the Observer he is engaged in negotiations with the late J.J. Pearce's insurance company, but is uncertain whether the two sides will be able to reach an out-of-court settlement.

"I'm not out to get the world," states Roy Thomas, who says he has never sued anyone before. "But I am out to make sure Brian gets just treatment. I don't want anybody to make Brian out like a god. But I don't want anybody to act like he don't exist either."

The Thomases say they have had no contact with the Pearce family. The Observer was unable to reach them for comment.

"I'm trying not to have any bad feelings against Mr. Pearce," says Roy, "because he paid the maximum price too. But if he had just waited a few seconds, both of 'em would still be here..."

Thomas says Forney Baptist Church was packed for his son's funeral. Brian's tombstone, decorated with a pair of eagles, will read: "Our beloved first son, Brian Keith Thomas. May he rest in peace."

"You don't think of your son dying before you do," says Thomas, his eyes full of tears. "You don't think your son--that you'll have to put him away."

"I don't doubt Mr. Pearce was a great man," he added. "I thought my son was pretty great too."

Jaimie Vargas contributed to this story.