Image: Paul Thomas
John Brecher  /  msnbc.com
Paul Thomas strolls down Main Street in Elkhart, a block-long stretch of which was recently renamed Paul Thomas Drive in his honor.
By Mike Brunker Projects Team editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/15/2009 1:19:45 PM ET 2009-07-15T17:19:45

If you want to get an earful about Elkhart’s resilience and the spirit of its residents, pull up a chair at the Old Style Deli and share a cup of coffee with Paul Thomas, the city’s unofficial historian, cheerleader and  ambassador-at-large.

The 85-year-old with the ready smile and the seamless patter of a Vaudeville comic can be found most mornings at the Main Street eatery, wise-cracking and trading playful insults with his pals. Introduce yourself and you’ll soon be part of the circle -- and the target of a few of his good-natured gibes. At the end of your chat, he’ll almost certainly utter his trademark farewell: “I’m so glad you got to meet me.”

While he likes to make light of almost everything, Thomas is not one to downplay the current economic malady that has beset the RV industry and rocked Elkhart’s economy. But he’s quick to remind a visitor that the city has a long history of reinventing itself -- having transformed from river town to rail town to pharmaceutical center to musical instrument capital before becoming home to the RV industry.

“We’ve always come out of it, and we’ll do it again,” he said.

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Thomas speaks from considerable experience.

Born in nearby Goshen on Oct. 13, 1923, he moved to Elkhart with his parents, Paul and Gertrude, when he was 6 months old. But for a stint at college, he has been there ever since.

He remembers the Elkhart of his youth as a bustling center of commerce with a small-town feel.

“Elkhart was a great town to grow up in,” he said. “It was a town where everyone knew everybody.  ...  Main Street was a very active place. On Saturdays you would go down and mom would shop and dad and the kids would sit on the car and watch the people go by.”

As a youngster, Thomas did the sorts of things boys typically did in small towns. He remembers greasing up the rails of the local trolley with his chums as a practical joke.

“The Sherman Street Bridge had a hill and the trolley couldn’t get up it after we greased them,” he recalled with a satisfied chuckle. “Finally the trolley company wised up and started carrying a sand bucket.”

Worked as air raid warden
When World War II broke out, Thomas was declared 4-F because of an injury suffered at 13, when he slipped while making a delivery on his father’s milk route and landed on a broken milk bottle, severing major nerves in his right hand. So while many of his buddies marched off to war, he worked in the C.G. Conn music factory by day, making bearings for tanks, and served as an air raid warden by night.

“You walked up and down the street and if you saw a light on you had to go up to the door and tell them to turn it off,” he said. “And you carried a tank of water with you in case of an incendiary bomb.”

After the war, Thomas married his wife, Betty, studied accounting at Indiana University in Bloomington, then returned to Elkhart to work as a shoe salesman. He later he went out on his own, opening Paul Thomas Shoes in 1955. A Main Street mainstay for decades, the store was especially popular with families with children because it had two doors – one normal sized and the other a pint-sized passageway for young customers.

Among the kids who made use of the little door were the Thomases’ four children -- Brian, Jenny, Amy and Bruce.

While he was peddling loafers, Thomas also got involved in local politics. A lifelong Republican, he served two terms on the City Council before being defeated in a mayoral bid. But after putting politics aside, he remained active in community groups, service organizations and city commissions.

But the successful businessman and man about town wasn’t exactly the king of his castle, recalled Brian Thomas, himself an Elkhart city councilman and inheritor of his dad’s wicked sense of humor. 

‘Mama called the shots at home’
“He called the shots storewise, but mama called the shots at home,” he said. “He may have been a big shot from 9 to 5, but after that all bets were off.”

Paul retired from the shoe business in 1988, leaving Brian to mind the store. But in no time he was working on a new project that seems certain to be his most lasting legacy: the Time Was Museum.

Built on the upper floor of the long-gone shoe store, the museum offers visitors a claustrophobic trip down Elkhart’s memory lane. The rooms are overflowing with historic photos of the area, old newspapers, patents and products created by the inventive locals and curiosities like an old mortician’s embalming kit.

As Brian Thomas recalls it, the museum basically created itself.

“He decided to remodel that upstairs area and once he got all his memorabilia up there that he’d collected, it just turned into a museum,” he said. “And then once it took off, people started dropping off stuff and donating it.”

In addition to running the museum, which Paul Thomas jokes is “funded by a federal grant – my Social Security,” he remains active in Elkhart civic affairs, serving on numerous city commissions. He’s also an active member of the local chapter of the Lions Club.

He has become such an Elkhart institution that Mayor Dick Moore, a Democrat, recently honored him by declaring that a one-block stretch of Main Street would henceforth be called Paul Thomas Drive. The mayor invited scores of townspeople to the surprise ceremony, at which he presented Thomas with the two signs that now hang on his very own block of downtown Elkhart.

Typically, Thomas made light of the whole affair, though he had to try hard to keep his apparent pleasure from spoiling the punch line.

“Eighty people kept it a secret from me,” he said afterward. “I’ve been mad ever since because I’m supposed to know everything.”

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