Robert Thomas Jr., a Pearl Harbor survivor who became Orange County's first chief administrative officer, has died. He was 95.
Thomas, a longtime resident of Orange, died of natural causes Feb. 10 at the home of his son, Robert Thomas III, in Gridley, a town in Northern California.
On Dec. 7, 1941, he was a young naval officer assigned to the USS Nevada when Japanese planes launched the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Thomas, who suffered shrapnel wounds to his legs and arm but continued to issue orders until he collapsed, was awarded the Navy Cross for bravery.
"I was probably going into shock, because I felt so safe and serene, even while the attack continued," Thomas told The Times in 2007. "I remember thinking, 'OK, you SOBs. You tried to kill me and you didn't.'"
According to his daughter, Carole Lynn Thomas, he kept a low profile for decades about his experiences at Pearl Harbor. In later years, though, he maintained a steady schedule as a guest speaker, visiting Newport Harbor High School, Camp Pendleton and other venues to pass his stories to younger generations.
Thomas was born July 16, 1919, in Illinois, where he grew up in a military family. During World War II even though he survived the conflict, his father, Robert Thomas Sr., died in a plane crash in 1943 while serving with the Navy.
The younger Thomas stayed in the service for nearly two decades after the war ended and remained an airplane enthusiast for the rest of his life.
Upon his retirement from the Navy in 1964, Thomas went to work for Orange County as building services director. He later was named chief administrative officer.
According to Chris Jepsen, president of the Orange County Historical Society, Thomas helped guide the region through a period of population and budget growth. During his tenure, the county budget increased from less than $100 million to more than $1 billion.
Among the structures built during Thomas' years with the county were the Civic Center in Santa Ana and the county jail. The Robert E. Thomas Hall of Administration at the Civic Center bears his name.
After Thomas announced his plan to retire in the mid-1980s, then-county Supervisor Bruce Nestande stated in The Times that Thomas "brought [Orange County] from a rural, agrarian nature to basically a major urban center, and did a very good job in doing so."
Carole Lynn Thomas remembers her father as a hard-working man who was dedicated to his job and enjoyed taking his family on history-oriented vacations, driving to sites such as Gettysburg, Penn., and Antietam in Maryland and telling his children the stories behind them. When she joined a 4-H club in junior high school, Thomas woke at 5 a.m. on school mornings to drive her to the local farm, then sat in the car doing crossword puzzles while she worked with animals.
"He was a great dad," she said. "He focused on his work 90% of the time, but the time he gave his kids was great."
Thomas' wife, Carol, died in 1982. In addition to his son Robert and daughter Carole Lynn, he is survived by another daughter, Helen Hogan, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at 12:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at Fairhaven Memorial Park, 1702 Fairhaven Ave., Santa Ana.