By Forest Riggs
The end of April brought a sad event that touched the lives of every Galvestonian and especially sent a bolt of loss and pain through the vibrant LGBTQ community on the Island. Historically, Texas has been full of larger than life characters, many of whom contributed greatly to the development and enrichment of the state, both in lore and image, as well as actions and deeds. We all think of famous and sometimes infamous people that have played a role in contributing to what Texas is all about.
Lyda Ann Thomas was, from birth, destined to do great things and become a Texas character that like her noted ancestors would, over time, contribute greatly and leave a mark. Silver spoons come and go and often they ruin those born into such situations; that was not the case for Galveston’s three-term mayor and longtime friend and companion to the citizens of the island she called home. There was something motherly about the silver-haired matriarch that made island folks feel safe, respected and secure in the belief that they had a voice and a caring friend
When the immigrant Kempner family blazed their oleander trail to Galveston, prosperity followed. Lyda Ann, granddaughter to wealthy businessman and developer Ike Kempner, knew early on that she would take her place among a line of strong, successful and, at times, stern individuals with a strong interest in public service and giving back. To this end, Lyda Ann did not fail.
Ask anyone on the Island about Lyda Ann Thomas and they will have a fond memory or story to share. She truly was the “people’s mayor” who did her very best to make all feel equal and supported. Known for riding around in her black car with the magnetic sign “Mayor” on the doors, Lyda Ann could be seen all over the island, from ribbon cuttings and civic events, to private house parties, and even leather clad astride a Harley for the annual Lone Star Bike Rally.
Once I asked her about the sign on her car and if it made her feel uncomfortable or an easy target. She, in her easily recognizable voice, chuckled and said, “I want to be easy to get to. I am the mayor; if someone has a problem or a question, they can get to me and we can talk about it.”
That was Lyda Ann. Rich, educated, funny, witty, dry and, at times, downright stubborn and stern, but never aloof or one to put on airs. She loved life and she loved interacting with Galvestonians.
I recall when I operated a gay and “straight-friendly” bed & breakfast, the Island Jewel, she would sometimes ask about my business, my guests and if “things are going well for you?”
When I sold the inn in 2008, just before Hurricane Ike, where she would let her presence be known to the world, she expressed to me that she was sad to see me close.
“Your business was needed; it showed visitors that Galveston welcomes all here,” she said.
I loved seeing Lyda Ann and her beautiful, longtime companion Elyse at functions and gatherings around the island. To run into them shopping or dining was always a real pleasure and a joy. She was real and it showed.
This tall, Texas woman stood firm during the devastation and aftermath of Hurricane Ike. She represented the strength and can-do attitude that guided a scared and confused population on a path of recovery. The “Steel Oleander” went to Washington D.C. and there she stood tall and strong as she informed the government officials exactly what Galveston needed in order to recover. Brushing shoulders with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Ike Kempner’s granddaughter let them know she meant business and would settle for nothing less for her Galveston and its people.
By her side during troubled times was City Manager Steve LeBlanc. Together they were an unstoppable team. I loved it when the two were speaking or conducting a press conference. Like a well-timed duo, they would field tough questions and pass the mic back and forth. I can still hear that gravel-toned voice of Lyda; when posed a difficult question, she would look at Steve and say, “Steve, you wanna handle that one?”
When term limitations ended her run as mayor, island favorite Joe Jaworski took over and readily admitted he had “big shoes to fill.” He filled those shoes and did so with advice and support of his friend Lyda Ann.
Such popular figures on the island, Mayor Thomas and Elyse were as recognized and loved as anyone, ever. Always gracious and willing to stop and chat or just pass the time of day, the ladies were a fixture around the island. So popular was Lyda Ann that a few folks donned Lyda Ann costumes for Halloween events. Longtime landscape guru, Matt Hannon, arrived at a function attired and coiffed as the beloved mayor. He was hit. Of Thomas’ passing, Hannon said, “This is a real loss for Galveston. Lyda Ann Thomas was as real as it gets. She made such a difference and will be missed.”
Lyda Ann was well aware of Hannon’s “costume,” and took it in stride. When shown a photo of Hannon in Lyda Ann Drag she stated, “Well, he looks good, but I don’t think Jim Windmiller did his hair.”
When someone great dies, people often say, “Gone but not forgotten,” a phrase tossed about at such times. I think it’s very fair to say that, like many Kempners before her, Lyda Ann Thomas will not be forgotten and certainly missed. She left an indelible mark.
I think of another island character that passed along a few years ago, the raconteur Victor Lang. He loved Lyda Ann and counted her as a friend. Victor loved to get wound up and press his sometimes antagonistic opinion on anyone that would listen. Somehow, I can imagine Lyda Ann Thomas in Heaven, Victor Lang seeking her out and approaching with some story or
opinion and her quickly looking around for Steve LeBlanc (not there yet)…”Steve, you wanna handle this?”
Thank you and rest in peace, dear Lyda Ann.
A resident of Galveston where he can be found wasting bait and searching for the meaning of life, Forest Riggs recently completed a collection of short stories about his beloved island and is working on a novel