Q. I worked with Johnny Thomas at WMFD-TV and WECT-TV in the late ’50s. Where is Johnny now?
A. Thomas, a television anchor, reporter and analyst in Jacksonville, Fla., for nearly 50 years, is retired. He lives with his wife Dana in Neptune Beach, Fla.
Thomas is also a renowned musician.
He was happy to hear from a reporter in Wilmington, where his career began.
“It’s been a long time, but I have great memories of Wilmington and my youthful days there,” Thomas said.
Thomas summarized his life and career in an email, beginning with his origins “in the North Carolina mountains near Spruce Pine.”
Thomas said he moved to Wilmington with his family when he was about 10, attended Lake Forest Elementary School and graduated from New Hanover High School in 1953.
Thomas began his broadcast career at age 16 at WMFD radio, “before television days in Wilmington.”
“I was in high school in 1951 when I began hosting a weekly teen news and music program,” he wrote. “(I) later became a full-time announcer on radio and when television came along I became the cowboy ‘star’ ‘Johnny Ranger,’ doing a daily kids program featuring western movies and ‘live’ commercials.”
Thomas also “operated all the technical equipment, directed, announced, etc., as did all of the other employees … everything it took to keep us on the air.”
“Our radio studios were on the second floor of a first-floor Sherwin Williams paint store on Princess Street downtown,” Thomas wrote. “Our television studios were constructed by all of us radio people on the third floor of that building.”
Thomas said he left WECT in 1956 to work for WTOC-TV in Savannah, Ga., “only because they had two studio cameras, we had only one, and I needed some two-camera experience.”
“No more money, but WOW, two cameras,” he wrote.
Thomas joined the Navy “before I was drafted into the Army” and served from 1958 to 1962.
“Having taught myself to play the piano at New Hanover High School and after hours in a neighborhood church, I attended the Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C. and served in Navy bands in the states and in Europe. I served on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, which brought me to Mayport, Florida, and Jacksonville,” Thomas said.
Following nearly 20 years as news reporter and anchor with WJXT-TV in Jacksonville’s channel 4, Thomas served for 14 years as managing director/executive producer/anchor for Florida Public Television at the state capitol in Tallahassee, where he produced and anchored public television’s highly acclaimed coverage of the legislature.
Thomas also conceived, produced and hosted the award-winning public affairs series “Florida Crossroads.”
In 1997, Thomas returned to northeast Florida where he continued his broadcast career in semi-retirement, serving as on-air senior news analyst and program host for WJCT public radio and television.
Thomas retired from broadcasting in 2005. In retirement, Thomas said he devotes much of his time volunteering for agencies and projects which serve the needs of senior citizens.
Since the early 1960s, Thomas has entertained audiences with his soft jazz piano renditions of swing, standards, blues, popular and jazz music at hotel, restaurant and nightclub landmarks throughout north Florida and southeast Georgia.
Thomas is remembered fondly in Wilmington.
“He’s a good musician. He always mixed in good with people,” said Wayne Jackson, who was on the air at WECT for 35 years and worked with Thomas.
Jackson retired from WECT in 1989 and went on to broadcast University of North Carolina Wilmington basketball games for 13 years. He’s stayed in touch with Thomas.
“He’s moved around a lot,” Jackson said.
Thomas “was at the radio station and when the television station came on, John was there at the very beginning,” Jackson said.
Thomas has returned to Wilmington several times to play at local jazz festivals, he said.
Date posted: July 31, 2012
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