Dan King Thomasson, a tenacious investigative reporter, rigorous editor and wide-ranging columnist, who grew up in a small town and spent his career trying to inform people in the heartland how Washington really worked, died March 25. He was 84.
The cause of death was heart failure, according to his son, Scot Thomasson.
Thomasson was a hard-working, driven reporter who developed sources during a career of more than 60 years with a mixture of gracious charm and gruff frankness. He traded information about the inner workings of Washington with people in power he trusted, and they in turn trusted him with their stories, secrets and the truth.
Those sources paid off with major scoops, first as a young reporter in Indiana and Colorado, and then in the nation’s capital, where Thomasson broke stories about President Kennedy’s mistress, who also was dating a mobster; Lyndon Johnson’s notorious fixer, Bobby Baker; repeated malfeasance by the FBI and how the Pentagon was spying on the White House.
His coverage of President Nixon and Watergate was ahead of the pack and helped earn him the nickname, “the lean gray wolf” of Washington journalism.
Thomasson was one of the first on the scene in 1969 when young Ted Kennedy crashed his car into the water in Chappaquiddick, Mass. A woman in the car died. When Thomasson would not stop demanding release of the accident report, the local police threw him out of the building.
Thomasson then broke stories about how Kennedy would be allowed to escape serious punishment by pleading guilty to a minor charge. A man with a long memory and a strong sense of justice, Thomasson never failed to remind people what Kennedy did and how different rules applied to the powerful.
Thomasson said he wanted to be a reporter since he was a boy in Shelbyville, Ind., when neighbors used to bring him newspapers from towns they visited on their travels.
He attended Indiana University, where he edited the student newspaper and was president of his chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, now called the Society of Professional Journalists. He also was president of the student foundation and general chairman of the Little 500 bicycle race.
After graduation, Thomasson worked at the Indianapolis Star until Uncle Sam sent him to the Army for two years. His superiors at Fort Sill, Okla., quickly figured out the young soldier could write, and though only a corporal, he edited the post newspaper while moonlighting at the local paper, the Lawton Constitution.
A civilian again, he joined the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, the paper owned by the giant newspaper concern Scripps Howard, which would be Thomasson’s professional home for most of his career and a source of great pride (and occasional frustration when the company didn’t meet his high expectations).
After exposing Colorado politicians who were using state cars for their personal use and stealing food from government programs, Thomasson was assigned to the Scripps Howard bureau in Washington, where he became an investigative reporter, managing editor and then bureau chief and corporate vice president for news.
Thomasson greatly expanded the influence of the Scripps Howard Washington bureau, turning its daily report for the company’s newspapers into a global news service and one of the nation’s largest supplemental news wires.
He was a regular on national television news shows including Face the Nation, Good Morning America, the Today show, Washington Week in Review and C-SPAN.
Never one to over-prepare for a television appearance or speech, he loved to be asked questions and then regale his audiences with stories he had covered, people he had met and things he had read. He never forgot a name or an event.
His friend and managing editor, Marvin West, called him a “pro’s pro.”
Thomasson was “a Scripps executive who never stopped being an old-fashioned newsman with great enthusiasm for the facts,” West said. “Dan reported some really big stories but even little ones got his attention. He had interest in and opinions about everything. Nothing ever just drifted past. That was how he lived life.”
Fiercely competitive, his greatest thrill was to break a story. As bureau chief, he often passed along tips to his reporters, prodded them until they got a scoop, or, in frustration, he grabbed a notebook himself. He was near retirement in 1995 when he raced to Oklahoma City to cover the bombing of a federal building that killed 168 people. He was the first to report that Tim McVeigh and a co-conspirator had surveilled other possible targets.
He had no tolerance for stories he did not like and expended little effort hiding his true feelings. During a live TV interview during his Oklahoma bombing coverage, he told a startled news anchor that a competitor’s report was a “load of crap,” a phrase not usually heard on television at the time.
Despite his bluff and bluster, Thomasson had a soft spot for young reporters, and he established a Washington semester program with the Scripps Howard Foundation that brought hundreds of college students to the bureau to do real reporting in the capital.
Thomasson retired in 1999 after 40 years with Scripps Howard, but continued writing a column that appeared in papers big and small but mostly in towns between the coasts. He never missed a deadline, and his final column, filed just before he died, was about protecting the land in New Mexico, a part of the West he cherished.
He was passionate about the people and culture of the Western states, especially art and literature. He also enjoyed jazz, a good detective novel and everything related to his home state of Indiana.
Born on Dec. 22, 1933 in Shelbyville, Ind., he was the son of a pioneer Indiana family and the great-great-great-grandson of George King, who founded the town of Franklin, Ind., and donated the land for Franklin College.
He loved talking about his family, especially his children and grandchildren. He is survived by four children, Scot, Lisa, Sean and Patrick; and 10 grandchildren, Claire, Nichole, Haley, Tyler, Andrew, Dane, Sam, Aden, Ashley and Nova; his former wife, LaQueta Thomasson; his longtime companion, Louise Curran; and sister, Peggy (Thomasson) Browne.
He was preceded in death by his parents, Hubert Lee and Mary Margaret King Thomasson; sister, Jacqueline (Thomasson) Weiss; and brother, Michael Thomasson.
During his career, he lectured and taught at several universities. He was a trustee of Franklin College, a member of the National Public Affairs Council for Indiana University, a member of the board of advisors for the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and a member of the Board of Visitors, Institute for Political Journalism, Georgetown University.
Thomasson was president of the Raymond Clapper Foundation and a trustee and vice president of the Scripps Howard Foundation. He was a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association, the Gridiron Club (President in 1992), the American Society of News Editors; the National Press Club, the University Club of Washington, D.C., Washington Golf & Country Club and the famed Bohemian Club.
His awards and recognition included “Man of the Year” by the Chamber of Commerce in Shelbyville, Ind., 1970; Associate Alumnus, Franklin College, 1989; Washington Journalism Hall of Fame, 1993; Indiana Academy, 1993; Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, 1997; Washington, D.C., chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, 1993. He won the Roy W. Howard Award for highest professional achievement in 1998, only the second time the award was given by the E.W. Scripps Company.
He wrote two books with his son, Scot.
Thomasson’s heroes, including company founders E.W. Scripps and Roy Howard, were stubbornly independent, free-thinkers who did what they thought was right, even when it was unpopular. He valued tradition and loyalty but advised young newsroom leaders to do things their own way.
He often quoted his old boss and mentor, Earl Richert, who said, “God Bless and roll your own.”
Funeral service will be conducted 11:00 a.m. Thursday, April 5, 2018, at Shelbyville First United Methodist Church. Visitation will be from 10:00 a.m. to service time at the church with Rev. Colin Cress officiating. Burial will be in Rest Haven Cemetery, Edinburgh, IN.
In lieu of flowers please make donations to The American Lung Association or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Online condolences may be sent to the family at www.myers-reed.com.
Myers~Reed Chapel on 25th Street is assisting the Thomasson family.