Max Thomas was 12 years old when he had to learn how to help take care of a family. He’s 62 now, and a big teddy bear of a man. When he talks, he waves his large hands a lot, and his eyes sparkle and his voice booms.
Max grew up in the 60s, in the midst of the turmoil of the civil rights movement, with a mother and father who had five children. He was the oldest. He loved sports, playing outside and reading about his favorite comic book hero, Dick Tracy.
His life changed on a Sunday afternoon. The family was around the dinner table after church, and it was the biggest and best meal of the week. His mother could make great meals. She worked as a cook at a popular restaurant on U.S. 60 between Shelbyville and Frankfort called the Halfway House.
“Life was tough,” says Max. “My mother worked 12 hours a day, and my dad had two full-time jobs. Not two part-time jobs, but two eight-hour-a-day jobs; manual labor. That’s all a black person had.”
He holds up a big hand to his head, smoothing the top of his scalp. “I’ve been bald since I was 19,” he says with a smile. “My dad was the college graduate of the neighborhood. He filed income taxes and stuff like that for all the black people around. If a black person had a problem in Frankfort, he came to my dad.”
The happy Sunday lunch after church turned tragic for 12-year-old Max. His dad was getting ready to eat when his head hit the table with a thud. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital. Max remembers the doctors telling his mother his dad had a brain tumor, and if he lived, he would probably always be a “vegetable.” Marvin Thomas died that night. He was 34 years old.
“He had always had headaches,” says Max, looking down. With Marvin dead, Max’s mom had five kids to raise and had lost her husband’s income. She had only her job at the restaurant.
“We had to go on welfare,” says Max. “It was really tough there for a while.”
Max went to work. He had paper routes and did any odd jobs he could to make money to help his mother and his four younger siblings. By high school, he was working full-time and giving half of his money to his mother and saving the other half so he could go to college. He would buy his little brothers and sisters clothes for school when he had nothing new for himself.
“When other kids were playing sports and everything like that, I had to work.”
He paid his own way through Kentucky State University. “I knew education was the way to get out of poverty,” he says. “The cost was low enough then that I could work summer jobs and pay for my tuition.”
Max met his wife, Cathy, at KSU. On June 26, they will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. “She has beauty and brains,” he says.
It was the 1970s, and he was extremely interested in a new wave of technology: computers. Max graduated and became a computer programmer. He worked for the state for 27 years. He retired 10 years ago as webmaster of the Finance Cabinet. He and his wife have three children: Marvin is an engineer in Atlanta, Alexandra is a teacher in Austin, and Deana is an archivist with the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort.
“I’m most proud of them,” says Max. He doesn’t speak for a minute. His big voice becomes very quiet, and he almost whispers. “They are all college graduates and successful.”
Max believes in education and helping people. He feels everyone should have a voice in government. When Barack Obama was first running for president in 2008, Max became involved in voter registration. He would set up stands at grocery stores and in low-income neighborhoods and help people register. He would bring stacks of cards from the Board of Elections and show people how to fill them out. It would take each person less than five minutes, but after that — they could vote. They could have a voice.
Max has been helping people register to vote ever since. He has helped an estimated 7,000 people. Each year he goes to Kentucky State University and helps hundreds of students register.
“Now, thankfully, you can even go online and do it,” he says. “We have a great Secretary of State who cares about it.” Online voter registration is available at www.GoVoteKy.com.
Max also helps sign up people for healthcare insurance. He has handed out more than 3,000 packets for people to help them get healthcare.
“I’ve had people come up to me with tears in their eyes, thanking me for getting them healthcare,” he says. “That really motivates me.”
He thinks about his own father. “We were too poor for him to get his headaches checked out. If he had healthcare, he’d probably still be alive.”
Max says he’s a Democrat because of his dad. “He told me at an early age that Democrats will help everyone, and the Republicans will help themselves.”