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Bernard Thomas, former judge and legislator, dies at 88


Former state District Court Judge and longtime Chinook community member Bernard Thomas died Tuesday. He was 88.

Thomas served as a judge for the Montana 12th Judicial District, which at that time included Hill, Blaine and Liberty counties, from 1967 to 1983.

Thomas also served as Blaine County attorney for six years, was elected to one term in the Montana House of Representatives for Blaine County, was a judge for the Montana Water Court, and was a member of the state Board of Pardons.

Montana Supreme Court Justice John Warner, who tried cases in Thomas' court and became judge in the 12th Judicial District six years after Thomas retired, remembered Thomas today as a fair judge, a community leader, and a family man.

"He was the judge when I started trying cases up there. He was a new judge at that time, but it was obvious that he was a good judge. He was very knowledgeable, very thorough, and he was one of the fairest people I've ever met," Warner said. "His integrity could not be questioned."

Warner also remembered Thomas as a dedicated parent of six children and a die-hard Chinook Sugarbeeters fan.

"He had all those kids and he just was really involved and participated with them," Warner said. "He was a great Sugarbeeters sports fan. I used to be a football and basketball referee, and he'd be in the stands when I was refereeing. He'd be cheering on the Sugarbeeters."

Anne Kilcup, 55, Thomas' second-oldest child and only daughter, said the family got together this week to remember her father's accomplishments.

"This past week we kind of wrote out a chronology of the different events of his life. Just going over that list was kind of overwhelming, because he really has accomplished a lot," she said.

Her father's accomplishments were not just public, she said, recalling how he was always willing to help people.

She said she has fond memories of him from her childhood.

"On a personal note, I was the only daughter of course, so I'm probably somewhat of a daddy's girl," Kilcup said. "When I was in grade school, I had my hair in a ponytail, so he would brush my hair in the morning before I went to school."

Kilcup said one of her favorite memories was one week when she and her oldest brother, David, got to sit with her father on the floor of the state House. She was 10.

"We used to explore" the building, she said. "It was a fun time."

Thomas' youngest child, Chris Thomas, 48,recalled his father as a dedicated public servant.

"He was wholeheartedly a Montana native," the Washington state resident said. "Aside from four years in World War II he spent his whole life in Montana. He definitely had his heart in the state and dedicated his whole life to public service. Not everyone always agreed with the decisions he made or the rulings he made, but he always acted with the public interest in heart."

Jim Thomas, 50, another of Bernard Thomas' five sons, remembered his father today as a quiet man who led by example and was well-respected in the community.

After Bernard Thomas retired, he took his wife, Elise, on steamboat trips on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, said Jim Thomas, who added that he remembers how his father took care of her before she died.

"One of the things later in life I remember was how he cared for our mother in the last years of (her) life, took good care of her and really watched out for her," Jim Thomas said.

"One of his last things he told me, in October when I saw him, was do the things you enjoy," Kilcup said. That was one thing her father did, she said.

"He enjoyed working, and he enjoyed helping others. He was very civic minded and did a lot of things. "

Thomas was born in Terry in 1915. After graduating high school in 1933, he attended Montana Normal College in Dillon where he received a teaching certificate. After teaching in rural schools for two years, Thomas enrolled at the University of Montana. He graduated with a law degree in 1940.

He then practiced law in Chinook until the United States entered World War II. Thomas enlisted in the U.S. Navy in January of 1942. He earned the rank of lieutenant and commanded two vessels until his discharge in 1946.

After the war, Thomas returned to Chinook to practice law. In June of that year he married Elise Wipf. Thomas practiced in a private firm until 1951 when he was elected Blaine County attorney. Five years later he was elected to the state House. In 1957, Thomas returned to private practice in Chinook. He practiced for 10 years until he was appointed state district judge. He won re-election in 1968, 1972, and 1976. He retired in 1983.


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