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The Tentacle


March 15, 2006

Who is Wendi Thomas?

Kevin E. Dayhoff

In an internal memo distributed to Baltimore Sun employees last Friday, it was announced that Wendi Thomas, an award winning newspaper columnist from Memphis, will be joining the newspaper in April replacing former Michael Olesker, who retired in January.

Many have anxiously awaited a fresh new approach on the part of The Sun. Mr. Olesker, whose erudite wit and repartee had graced Baltimore newspapers for nearly 30 years, has been noticeably missed during the 2006 session of the Maryland General Assembly.

Certainly no one could possible miss Mr. Olesker more than WBAL’s Ron Smith, who wrote in January that he was sorry to see Mr. Olesker leave...… “I’m going to miss him and the reflexive urban liberalism that so often, as expressed in his column, provided a most convenient target for ridicule.”

The March 10 memo, from “Tim, Bob, Sandy, Mike & Howard,” went on to say that Ms. Thomas has been with her hometown newspaper, the Commercial Appeal, since August 2003. Before then she “worked as a reporter and editor at The Indianapolis Star, The (Nashville) Tennessean and the Charlotte Observer. She is a 1993 journalism graduate of Butler University.”

Later that Friday evening, an Associated Press article by Kasey Jones appeared on The Sun Web-site: “Thomas, 34, will write a twice-weekly column…” Howard Libit, The Sun's city editor was quoted: “She's going to bring a terrific voice to Baltimore… She has sharp insight, she is known for her flair and humor. She's made a real impact in Memphis, and we think she will do the same here."

Ms. Thomas said in the same article that it was the "hardest decision of my career. I grew up in Memphis, my parents live here … but this was an opportunity I could not pass up.… I'll put my dog in the back seat and start driving east."

Her Rottweiler's name is “Layla.”

In response to those who have asked just what does a metro columnist do,” a January Poynter Viewer Forum Post, Eric Nalder, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote: “Great metro columnists are unpredictable… The subject of the column may arrive from Mars, or City Hall, but it is impossible to guess ahead of time what it will be. The flavor, as well, and the likelihood that you will perfectly agree with the sentiments – are unpredictable. The only predictable aspects will be the great writing, the passion, and the caring for the community – whether by tough love or embrace.”

To which, Leanne Kleinmann, of The Commercial Appeal, responded: “Love her one day, hate her another… “Take a look at Wendi C. Thomas… The same people who hate her on Tuesday love her on Sunday, and she's made a habit of saying what needs to be said, especially to local black politicians and trash-talking rappers.”

The Sun memo went on to reflect that her columns – “known for their flair and humor – include taking on a prominent and controversial political family and calling for elected officials to sign ethical codes of conduct. She has examined potential budget cuts to after-school activities in Memphis and told stories of redemption among ex-gang members. And she has challenged a ballet teacher who won't let a pupil with dreadlocked hair perform in a recital.”

Apparently, Ms. Thomas, a classically trained pianist, has won numerous journalism awards on her way to Baltimore. Her Commercial Appeal Web-site bio says she is “a proud product of the Memphis City Schools” and “began her newspaper career as an obituary writer for The Indianapolis Star.”

The Web-site bio explained that she was named “Best Local Columnist in 2004 and 2005 by the Memphis Flyer and profiled as one of six Memphis women to watch in Memphis magazine.” Additionally she received, “the 2004 Best in Commentary award from Scripps Howard newspapers, taking first place in humorous commentary in the 2004 Society of Professional Journalists' Green Eyeshade Awards and being honored in 2005 as one of 20 newspaper industry leaders under 40 in the Newspaper Association of America's Presstime magazine.”

A brief bio, which appeared in Presstime magazine, reflects that for diversion, she reads politically oriented blogs, knits, and creates scrapbooks, in addition to playing the piano.

A quick review of her columns certainly indicates an insightful and humorous approach. She, without a doubt, speaks her mind and does not stand on ceremony. Many of her pieces had me spiting out my Doctor Pepper laughing.

Her work covers the gamut from a February 9th, 2003, Charlotte Observer article about the lack of easy access to grocery stores in Charlotte’s Southside Park, to a recent Commercial Appeal column bursting the balloon of “Memphis' own Three 6 Mafia” as they “became the first rap group to perform at the Oscars.”

If you will recall, the Oscar was for the rap song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." Her response was how shall we say – excoriating.

“And I want us to realize that just because we can offend doesn't mean we should,” she wrote in a thoughtful column on media self-censorship and the prophet Muhammad cartoons.

But the piece that had me in hysterics was about a bill filed in the Tennessee legislature “that would virtually outlaw vibrators, dildos and the like.” I’m not kidding.

Many cannot wait for her insights about the opera we have come to know as the Maryland General Assembly.

"We will dearly miss Wendi's column but wish her all the best in her new job,'' said Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck.

Preliminarily, it would appear that their loss is our gain.

We could use a little humorous commentary from The Sun. Welcome to Maryland, Ms. Thomas. We are all looking forward to developing a relationship with your distinctive voice. A few fresh witty and humorous insights will do us all a great deal of good.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at: kdayhoff@carr.org



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