Agency boss who trained four national newspaper editors dies aged 52

A former news agency chief who trained a generation of national press journalists, oversaw the huge expansion of South West News and once told Robert Maxwell to "bugger off" has died aged 52.

David Thomas was suffering from fibrosis of the lungs and was awaiting a transplant.

Known and respected throughout the industry as Tommo, he trained hundreds of young journalists – including four who went on to edit national newspapers and three who currently still do.

In a dog-eat-dog world renowned for tough training, for more than two decades Tommo inspired hundreds of trainees at South West News Agency in Bristol with his unique combination of compassion and fun.

Many of those trainees went on to hold senior positions in the British media, including editors Tony Gallagher of the Daily Telegraph, Ian MacGregor of the Sunday Telegraph, James Scott of the People and Tina Weaver, formerly of the Sunday Mirror.

Tommo cut his teeth with the nationals at the Sunday People where, as a young cub reporter shifting on the newsdesk, he once took a call from the paper’s then publisher Robert Maxwell.

Maxwell, a bullying, larger than life and, as it turned out, criminal rogue, simply introduced himself on the telephone as "the publisher, here".

Tommo, thinking it was a pal playing a trick, hung up on the proprietor three times. When he finally realised this caller was in fact the boss, he was bright enough to give a false name when asked to identify "the impertinent pup" that had told Maxwell to "bugger off".

David Henry Vivian Thomas was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk on 20 September, 1960. He trained at journalism college in Cardiff, before joining the fledgling South West News Agency (SWNS) in Bristol, while also shifting as a casual reporter on the People.

During his two-week trial period at SWNS, Tommo could not afford to stay in a hotel, so at the end of each day he bid his erstwhile boss John Roulston a cheery farewell and left the office.

Once he was sure the small, dungeon-like office was empty for the night, Tommo would let himself in again and sleep on the floor.

Impressed that Tommo (pictured below with colleague Andrew Young) first into the every morning, along with his boundless "enthusiasm" and natural talent, he was rewarded with a job.

As news editor/partner he oversaw the growth of SWNS, from a small business with just a handful of reporters, into Britain’s biggest independent news agency, employing 140 staff with offices in Bristol, Plymouth, Cambridge, the Midlands, Yorkshire, and Scotland.

Countless top-flight magazine executives, reporters and photographers also started their working lives under his gentle and understated tutelage.

He was modest but privately proud of his trainees who, often not much younger than himself, went on to important jobs. However, he never boasted of being instrumental in so many successful careers.

Though his extensive network of well-placed former trainees proved useful when in 2003 he founded Bristol-based Medavia to represent members of the public who became embroiled in national news stories. Invariably, his clients became firm friends.

One of his first ‘Category A’ clients – as he referred to those caught in the eye of a media storm – was Charles Ingram, the infamous Coughing Major, winner of £1million from Who Wants To Be A Millionaire thanks to an ingenious scam that involved fits of coughing when host Chris Tarrant read out a correct answer.

Father-of-three Tommo’s benevolence, enthusiasm and friendliness endeared him to his employees and to the subjects of the often-bizarre stories he uncovered.

One client said: “If you could bottle Tommo’s enthusiasm the world would be a much better place.”

But in 2010, at the age of 49, he was diagnosed with lung fibrosis and was given just a year to live unless a donor for a lung transplant could be found.

Despite being flown four times to the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle – the UK centre of excellence for transplant surgery – he was, for various reasons, unable to undergo a lung transplant and he died on Friday 13 September – one week short of his 53rd birthday.
 
A devout Buddhist, he took part in medical trials to prove the benefits of meditation. Doctors were astounded at how meditation could improve the oxygen levels in his severely damaged lungs.

Because of his faith, Tommo accepted his fate philosophically and to the moment of his death was upbeat about the possibility of being called again for a lung transplant.

He even joked about being the top of the transplant waiting list, telling friends: "My dad would have been proud to know that I finally made it to the top at something."

Just months after his diagnosis Tommo wrote a moving article, published in the News of World and his local evening newspaper, ensuring his family and friends that "This dying lark isn't really as awful as it's cracked up to be."

He went on to say that Buddhism had taught him to meet life, and death, calmly. "Being told you are dying is an extraordinary thing. Suddenly you are facing the big one. It's an awful lot to get your head round," he wrote.

 "But dying isn't all bad. From the moment someone tells you you're dying you see the world very differently. You value everything so much, it's actually quite wonderful."

A proud Welshman, who hardly ever missed a big rugby game at Cardiff, he later made the trip in a wheelchair, surrounded by oxygen bottles. Anyone who has battled through the crowd at the Millennium Stadium will know how much determination it took for him to watch Wales from a wheelchair.

While Tommo was quietly proud of his professional achievements, he was not so modest when it came to his wife Judith, sons Gwilym and Rhys and daughter Catrin.

They, together with his mother Glen, or Gu – Welsh for grandmother – and his brother Rick were the centre of his universe. He often said he was lucky to be "blessed" with such a loving, close family.

During the three years he survived after diagnosis, Tommo campaigned for a change in the law to 'presume consent' where people would opt-out of donating their organs for transplant should they wish, rather than the current 'opt in' policy. An opt-out policy is now running in Wales.

Catrin, known as Cadi, started a charity to raise awareness of the importance of organ donation, promoting the opt-out system having witnessed at first hand the anguish the present rules place on transplant hopefuls and their families as they wait, often in vain, for a suitable donor.

Tommo was so very fond of the many close friends he made along the way, both professionally and personally.

One highlight on the Thomas calendar was the traditional Christmas Eve get-together where friends and neighbours were treated to his generous hospitality and a festive sing-song around his famously un-tuned piano.

It is testament to Tommo's zest for life that many of the hundreds of messages and cards of condolence to the family were from NHS consultants, medical experts and nurses who had come to love him and respect him.

He never complained once about his own condition or his prospects and he embraced his fate with open arms. Buddhism helped him face this challenge without fear or self-pity, the only pain he suffered was that of his family and friends.

Tommo will be sorely missed and the world a sadder place without him. Gone, but never forgotten.

The Buddhist monks at his local temple in Bristol say he will forever be here helping, inspiring and caring, as only Tommo could.

David Thomas born September 20 1960, died September 13, 2013

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