he legacy of Platte County Sheriff Tom Thomas reaches way beyond his status as the longest-tenured sheriff in the county’s history at the time of his retirement in 1996–or his history-making win as the first Republican to be elected to any public office in the county when he arrived in 1968.
His accomplishments go beyond the respect he earned by his patient guidance as he mentored dozens of young deputies during his 28 years in the post.
Current Platte County Sheriff Mark Owen said his mentor’s legacy extends from “the bottom of his heart,” which is the spot where he held each of his charges, from new recruits to seasoned deputies.
The 83-year-old Thomas died Dec. 29 following a battle with a lung disease, but the memories of his perpetual opened door remain, Owen said. Thomas’s caring spirit followed him throughout his career, when he swapped his office door for the one at home, where the policy continued. He and his wife, Becky, were known to frequently entertain deputies at their cabin at Bean Lake. The frequent backyard barbecues reached all the way back to the time when the sheriff’s department depended upon weekend reserve officers, giving the county’s five or six full-time deputies a much-needed respite.
Owen said his mentor’s attention and influence had a wide reach—way beyond the sheriff’s department.
“He was there for everybody, I don’t know of any employee he didn’t like,”
“He was there for everybody,” he said. “I don’t know of any employee he didn’t like,” he said, adding that sometimes broader law enforcement was engaged in a common goal, despite being from different agencies. He remembered when Michael Turner, a dangerous convict, escaped from nearby Fort Leavenworth Correctional facility and all agencies, including the FBI and U.S. Marshals Service, were engaged in an 18-hour search.
“Everybody and their brother was here,” Owen remembered. Thomas’s deputies found the prisoner, sending the other agencies packing. “I had faith in you,” was Thomas’s reply, when he heard the news.
But Thomas did more than just coordinate occasionally on cases with other law enforcement. He contributed to the training of not only sheriff’s deputies, but also those who took their skills to careers in other law enforcement venues, from highway patrol officers to the federal Secret Service and U.S. Marshals.
Thomas’s people skills and compassion were ever present. Sometimes he seemed ahead of the times, like when he arrived on the scene of cases involving traumatic outcomes to ask if his deputies needed any help dealing with their role in the incident, from time away to counseling. That was before the wide-spread diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other such psychological disorders. He approached other aspects of the job in the same manner, Owen said.
“Job interviews in which he interviewed potential deputies ranged from formal meetings in which Thomas studied resumes and job experience, to casual conversations in which he skipped the formalities.” ‘I’ve got a feeling… let’s hire him!’ Thomas said.
Platte County Sheriff’s Captain Tony Avery recalled the feeling after Thomas and other officials interviewed him as a 20-something, following his military service. “They really gave a young kid a chance,” he said.
Thomas didn’t let his compassion keep him from “laying out some pretty strict rules,” Owen said. “You had to do it right and be thorough,” he said, adding that he also knew when to back off and let deputies do their jobs. “He believed in his people.”
Thomas’s reputation led county officials to dedicate, in his name, a portion of the building that joins the Platte County Courthouse with the sheriff’s department. A portrait of Thomas is posted in the hallway, along with a plaque listing his years of service and immense influence. “He was highly, highly respected,” Owen said.
Platte County was replete with family farms back in 1968, when Thomas first was elected sheriff. So fond were the farmers of Thomas, that many “old-timers” would inquire about Thomas following his retirement.
Avery added, “He (Thomas) really laid the ground-work,” he said of the area that experienced a population boom that continues today. “He was really the right person for Platte County,” he said.
Thomas was a complete package, said Avery, who said he’ll never forget many of his former boss’s standout qualities.
“For those of us who are height-challenged, he always had an imposing command,” he said of the man who stood six feet four inches, adding that “it was just the way he carried himself. When Tom Thomas walked in the room, you knew it was somebody important.”