Family's bad fortunes propelled Thomas to better life


SAVANNAH, Ga. -- To see where the life of Clarence Thomas might have ended up, one must journey to where it began, out on the tidal flats of the Moon River just south of town, where marsh grasses bend gently to breezes that smell faintly of brine and mud.

Here at a small community called Pinpoint, little has changed from June 1948 when the man President Bush has nominated for the Supreme Court was born. The shack of a crab house where his mother picked meat for a nickel a pound still stands by the murky water. Some 30 yards inland is where he first lived, on a homesite tucked in the shade of majestic live oaks drooping gray and ragged with Spanish moss. And it is there he might have stayed and foundered, sinking into the poor but tranquil lifestyle as firmly as a clam burrowed in the ooze.

But at an early age his family's bad fortunes forced him into town, to the home of a grandfather who was both optimist and enforcer. The grandfather, in turn, thrust the young boy into the arms of the Roman Catholic Church, with its rigid schools of nurturing, knuckle-swatting nuns.

Now, with Mr. Thomas on the verge of becoming an arbiter of laws and values for the entire nation as a justice of the highest court, his upbringing is back at center stage, because the same forces that helped boost him to prominence also shaped the strong, outspoken opinions that could make his confirmation hearing an angry, bitter struggle.

Mr. Thomas' life got off to a slow, shaky start, his mother, Leola Williams, says:

"The midwife shaked him and he wouldn't cry, and she spanked him and he wouldn't cry. She said, 'I don't know what I'm going to do,' and she shaked him again, and he just yawned, and that's all. I said, 'You're a lazy boy.' "

He was the second child in the family, following his sister, Emma Mae, into the world by a year. By the time he was 17 months old, a younger brother, Myers, had come along, but his father had already left for parts unknown.

For six years they moved from home to home in Pinpoint, first living with friends and then sharing a room -- all four of them -- at an aunt's house. His mother then found a job in town, which meant more pay but more hours away from the children, and a bus ride every morning at 7. Something had to be done.

"I first talked to my Dad [about taking in the two boys] and he

didn't give me no answer, so I talked to my Mom," Mrs. Williams said. "She was tickled to death." So, the boys headed to their grandparents' home on East Broad Street. Their sister stayed in Pinpoint with her aunt. Mr. Thomas said later that it was the most important move of his life, and the vast difference it made baffles him still.

Today, his sister still lives in Pinpoint, in a small, poorly kept,

two-room house that is filled with clutter. She laments that a neighbor's home has now been broken into eight times in the past year by cocaine addicts. Like her mother, she ended up working in the neighborhood crab house, paid by the pound, though she now works in the kitchens of Savannah's Candler Hospital. Her mother works there, too, pulling the morning shift as a nurse's assistant.

In a 1983 interview, Mr. Thomas pondered their divergent paths as he mused over such subjects as affirmative action and programs designed to help blacks, wondering aloud whether they can ever help people who get the wrong start in life.

"What is it that made me different from my sister?" he asked. "We come from the same place, the same genes, same mother and father, same circumstances, but raised by different relatives." He pointed out that he and his brother earned college degrees but added, "My sister? AFDC [welfare]. Four kids. She's a good person, a super person. But she's different. She isn't educated."

For his mother, the move meant that a different relationship developed with her sons. Even their weekend visits soon began to grow farther apart when her own mother "got so attached to the children." Besides, "It was family taking care of them, and I knowed I needed help, and their father weren't no good. . . . My kids and I got along like sister and brother instead of like mother and boys."

If Myers Anderson was at first reluctant about taking in his grandsons, he soon took to the duty with a zeal characterizing everything he did. He began working on them as he had upon his home, a solid one-story structure he'd built piece by piece, right down to making each of the concrete blocks.

His conversation around the house was loaded with the sort of homilies that children of the Depression era are prone to hear in their sleep: "He used to always say that there was no problem elbow grease can't solve," Mr. Thomas has said.

"Then he'd say things like, 'Old Man Can't is dead. I helped bury him.' " Then he'd go out and work, almost around the clock, delivering ice, fuel oil, coal and wood.

Floyd Adams, an old friend of Mr. Thomas' who is now a Savannah alderman and editor of the black-oriented weekly newspaper, recalled of Mr. Anderson, "He was always standing erect, a smile on his face, but outspoken when he had to be. On the East side, everybody looked up to him for advice."

The one thing Mr. Anderson was most serious about was his religion, and he didn't take kindly to friends who kidded him about being a Catholic adrift in an ocean of Baptists.

This meant that Mr. Thomas and his brother, who hadn't been particularly enthusiastic about school before, were soon enrolled Catholic school, with its tough new universe of rules and discipline.

First, there were the uniforms. Then came the regimented politeness.

"When the sister came into the classroom, you stood up and said, 'Good morning, Sister Virgilius,' and when she left you stood and said, 'Good afternoon, Sister Virgilius,' " recalled Roy Allen, a classmate of Mr. Thomas' at both St. Benedict's Elementary School and St. Pius High School, and now a Democratic state senator in the Georgia Legislature.

Missing Mass meant two vigorous raps across an open palm with a big stick. But blowing a question on the rote religious instruction of the Baltimore catechism meant closing up the palms for two strikes across the knuckles. "And if you got caught eating meat on Friday," Mr. Allen said, "that was a whipping."

Besides Mass, there were other services and devotionals. There was the rosary to say each day. Confessions. Altar boy duty.

"These were massive doses of Catholicism," Mr. Allen said. "Father Cuddy would come around two or three times every year and say, 'OK, who wants to be a priest?' And when you're 14, love and sex aren't very high up on your agenda, so we were pretty gung-ho."

For Mr. Thomas, the dosages only increased when he got home for the day. "His grandfather was like an extension of the school, the church and the rectory," Mr. Allen said.

But with all the discipline came learning, and with the lessons of the books came lessons of life, driven home by the nuns.

"The nuns had a tremendous influence on him, like all of us," said Mr. Adams. "They always encouraged us to get out of the South, to improve ourselves academically so we could go to a Northern college and get out."

"Our interest was in preparing these kids to lead their lives," said Sister Virgilius Reidy, now retired. "But it's not like these were a bunch of hopeless creatures."

The nuns may have made their lessons all the more convincing making some sacrifices of their own.

Savannah and other Southern cities at that time were a focus of one of the great social missions of the Catholic Church: to educate the black children of the segregated South. Assigned to that mission were the sisters of the Franciscan order. The result was classrooms full of black children, speaking in the lilting tones of the Deep South, taught by austerely dressed sisters whose voices rang out in the rich brogue of Ireland.

Sister Virgilius is one of the nuns mentioned the most by Mr. Thomas' fellow students. She left her home in Ireland in 1931 for three years of instruction in Rome, then left for 18 years of teaching Italian-Americans in Brooklyn until the call went out for help in the South. Off to Savannah she went, housed at the Franciscan convent in the heart of East Savannah's black community.

Mr. Allen remembers once boarding a bus with his class and hearing the driver tell the white sister that even though the children had to sit in the back, she could sit up front. "The sister said, 'No, I won't. I'll sit with my children,' " he recalled.

But he always suspected that the sacrifices of the sisters went deeper than their $50-a-month salaries and a few rides in the back of a bus, and a few years ago he confirmed as much in conversations with some of his old teachers.

The problem came from tension that lay just below the surface between the Franciscans and the Sisters of Mercy, who taught white children at Savannah's St. Vincent's School, he said.

"The Franciscans were always quietly referred to as 'the nigger nuns,' " he said. "So, they really cast their lot with these kids."

Sister Virgilius played down her role. "We knew how to play our cards," she said. "When you're in religious life, you have to leave everything in the hands of God."

When Southern schools began to integrate, the mission lost its purpose, and today the Franciscans are an order of aging nuns. Many of the older ones, such as Sister Virgilius, live in an order nursing home in Tenafly, N.J.

In Savannah, the building that used to be the Franciscan convent is now a halfway house for alcoholics, while the parish of St. Benedict the Moor no longer runs an elementary school. The main community work of the parish now is its weekly soup kitchen and its every-Thursday handout of 65 bags of groceries.

The Rev. Jim Mayo, who for the past 11 years has been parish priest, thinks some of the church's most important community work has been lost with the school, and in speaking on the subject he echoes the phrases Mr. Thomas has used in many of his writings and speeches.

"The Marine philosophy pays off, and that's what the nuns used," he said. "You tell a kid he's smart, and it works. You tell them you can achieve anything you want, within reason, and it works. . . . And I think that what's wrong with our society today. We want to throw everybody a fish instead of teaching them to fish."

Tales of rock-hard discipline and the skyrocketing achievement that followed for Mr. Thomas don't mean that he hasn't had moments of mischief, and even doubt, along the way.

In recent days many of his oldest friends have laughed when they've heard him described as a humorless superachiever who never had time for anything but serious pursuits.

"We were typical black boys going to school and playing ball, and no one said to each other at age 9 or 10, 'You show promise,' " Mr. Allen said with a laugh.

"Sometimes we'd raise our hands to go to the bathroom, then sneak out of the school. You could hop the fence, get a snowball at Miss Nora's place on East Broad and be back in your seat before the nuns were worrying about where you were. We were average, mischievous kids growing up in the South. But guess what? We all went on to high school and college, and most of us did quite well."

Mr. Thomas briefly took up the call to the priesthood, spending his last two years of high school at Minor Seminary near Savannah, then enrolling in the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Missouri after graduation.

But the call didn't hold.

Sister Virgilius said she always suspected that he'd only done it to please his grandfather, and his mother confirmed as much when she said his grandfather found him crying in his room during one of his weekends home. He confessed then that he wanted to quit the seminary.

Mr. Thomas said in a 1987 interview with the Atlantic magazine that it also didn't help his zeal when, just after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he overheard a white seminarian say, "Good, I hope the son of a bitch dies."

So, Mr. Thomas veered to another course, entering Holy Cross University and later earning a law degree from Yale. From there it was off to a brief stint in commercial law followed by public service jobs, first in Missouri and then in Washington. Last year he was appointed to the bench, filling the post vacated by Judge Robert H. Bork on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Along the way, though he has retained the lessons of the nuns, he has stopped to wiggle his toes in the waters of agnosticism, he told Savannah magazine last year. And even when he rediscovered his faith, he became an Episcopalian. His friends say that is probably a result of his 1984 divorce from his first wife, Kathy, which would have barred him from Catholic Communion. He remarried in 1987, to Virginia Lamp, and retained custody of the son from his first marriage, 18-year-old Jamal Adeen Thomas.

For those who wonder how Mr. Thomas ended up as a conservative Republican, while most of his friends, such as state Senator Allen, have ended up as Democrats, Mr. Allen offered this: "Clarence is not an anomaly. Clarence is a product of the environment out of which he came. He represents those kinds of views on hard work, discipline and respect that we got in school."

Mr. Allen said he would testify on Mr. Thomas' behalf at the confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate.

He also said that Mr. Thomas may well surprise those who think they have his opinions pegged on the basis of one or two lines drawn from speeches and past articles, and he predicted that even President Bush may be in for a few surprises.

As for Clarence Thomas himself, he has said little since his nomination. His only recent public words of note came when Mr. Bush announced his nomination. Standing at the president's side, he spoke first of his family and of "the nuns" who had taught him that he could be whatever he wanted. Mr. Thomas choked up as he made the statement, and Mr. Allen said he understood exactly what was going through his friend's mind.

"He thought about those days on the bus," Mr. Allen said. "He thought about those cold sandwiches and potato chips at lunch. And he thought about pitching pennies on the sidewalk. And when he said, 'the nuns,' he meant Thaddeus, he meant Virgilius. I think all of that welled up in him."

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