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Columnist Mike Thomas leaving the Orlando Sentinel

By Susan Jacobson, Orlando Sentinel

12:14 AM EDT, September 28, 2011

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Mike Thomas, the Orlando Sentinel’s longtime columnist, is leaving the newspaper this week to become a spokesman for the Orange County school district.

In a memo to the Sentinel’s staff Tuesday night, Editor Mark Russell said Thomas "has been a powerful voice for the environment, education and political pragmatism at the local, state and national levels."

Thomas’ supervisor, Opinions Editor Mike Lafferty, said Thomas’ departure is a loss for the region as well as for the newspaper and its website.

"As much as some people might have tried, they couldn’t pigeonhole him as a liberal or a conservative," Lafferty said. "Mike had a viewpoint that was based on that particular issue and not on a particular ideology. The independence of his thought stood out."

A University of Florida graduate, Thomas, 56, joined the Orlando Sentinel in March 1983 after spending four years as a reporter at Florida Today in Brevard County. He initially covered the city of Kissimmee and the police beat in Osceola County and drew kudos for his work on the team that covered the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Thomas said that in those days he worked 50 hours a week at his regular job and an extra 20 hours writing about the environment. He was rewarded in 1984 by being assigned to cover the subject, which is of vital importance in Central Florida.

"Mike made his name as an environmental writer," said Sal Recchi, Thomas’ longtime editor and the paper’s current education editor.

Thomas subsequently was the roving state reporter, covering everything from hurricanes to politics. Later, he joined the Sentinel’s Florida magazine, where he became known for his column Restless Native.

One of his strengths was boiling down complicated subjects so ordinary people could understand them, his editors said.

"He had the gift of clarity," Lafferty said.

Some of Thomas’ most popular columns shared anecdotes, some deeply personal, about his family and their rotund cat, Chester. His 2004 column about Chester’s death motivated hundreds of readers to share their view that there is a pet heaven, he wrote that May.

More recently, Thomas wrote about politics, schools, the death penalty, Casey Anthony, the police, NASA, the Gulf oil spill and the environmental damage associated with lawns.

"I think journalism is more important now than it’s ever been," Thomas said Tuesday. "Credible news sources and credible reporting in this age of digital media is more important now than it’s ever been."

A start date for Thomas’ new job as senior manager of construction communications for the school district has not been set, said Kathy Marsh, a district spokeswoman. He will replace Lin Wright, who recently retired.

sjacobson@tribune.com or 407-540-5981