I became personally acquainted with Reno Thomas less than a decade ago, when I was asked to write a story about a project he was working on to benefit the rescuers cleaning up lower Manhattan a few months after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Thomas, who succumbed Monday morning after a lengthy health battle, is best known to residents of Snyder and Union counties for his six terms in the state legislature, beginning in 1968. Since our relationship began more than 20 years after he served, I had a chance to see Reno in a light many others never did.
Oh, don't get me wrong - this man remained a political animal to the last. But while he was conservative without regrets, he occasionally surprised even me with his rare support of a dark horse or even an opposite-party candidate. More often than not, that would be a sign that he felt the chosen one did not respect the conservatism he espoused.
My sole political venture with Reno surrounded the gubernatorial candidacy of Lynn Swann. Swann knew his football popularity would take him but so far, and he reached well into farm country for support in his 2006 campaign. Reno and his brother, Park, invited me as a guest - understanding I remained a member of the working press - to one of Swann's agricultural coming out parties, in Lancaster County.
That's when I saw the master politician at work for the first time - and I mean the retired legislator, not the ex-receiver. Reno worked the crowd like a carnival barker, ginning up support for Swann, who still was viewed with a jaded eye by some.
Reno and I also shared a passion for tomatoes - in fact, it's somewhat appropriate that, on the day he left us, I processed the first harvest of the year from our family garden. Reno maintained a greenhouse at the site of his farm in western Snyder County; he would start dozens of plants each spring and give away to a select few as many or more than he kept. I was lucky enough to be his beneficiary one year.
But more than anything else, he loved his pigs. He was proud of the accomplishments he and Park achieved with their swine farm (he also was involved in dairy farming with another brother, Carl, and his son-in-law was part of the family business for 22 years.) He spoke to me of the breeds that he and Park introduced to the local landscape in an effort to improve swine farming for the region.
Just a few years after he left farming in 1998, terrorists attacked. And as the effort to restore New York City began, Reno and Park decided to do something about it. They spearheaded a campaign called "Pork for New York." Truckloads of meat were taken to a restaurant called Nino's, which had been converted into an impromptu lunch counter for the men and women working on the rescue effort - all fed by volunteers at no charge.
Along with Park, Reno and several members of their church, I followed a truck into the city, and saw firsthand the damage that had been done, and the rediscovered American spirit that was determined to rebuild. It was an awe-inspiring experience, one I'll never forget.
I won't forget Reno, either. The friendship that was forged on that trip may have been short-lived, but certainly was valuable. I saw Reno a bit more than a year ago, stopping at his house just to see what he was up to. With a twinkle in his eye, he said he looked forward to seeing me again.
It appears I waited too long.
Jeff Fishbein is sports editor of The Sentinel. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.