PROVINCETOWN — The man responsible for the longest running show in Provincetown died at home in his sleep on Dec. 7, 2019. Donald “the Dancing Cop” Thomas, who lived with his daughter, Donna, in Eastham, was 92.
Perhaps more than any other street spectacle in this colorful town, Thomas’s graceful steps and spins, done to the tune of his police whistle, was the most mesmerizing and certainly the longest-lasting.
Thomas, the son of a Portuguese fisherman, began volunteering for the town in the police auxiliary in 1947, shortly after returning from his World War II assignment at a veterans’ hospital in Staten Island, N.Y.
“His big joke was, ‘I went overseas. I went to Staten Island,’ ” said his granddaughter, Carmen Thomas of Yarmouth Port.
As some point in the 1970s, he became a summer patrolman and an instant legend.
“He became a traffic cop icon, effortlessly spinning, sidestepping, pivoting, but most of all moving the cars along in Lopes Square,” Police Chief James Golden said.
His entertaining moves made him famous — Boston TV stations covered his death — but they were also effective. He understood the dynamics of cars, bikes, and pedestrians, “and that’s a science and that’s what made him so valuable,” Golden said. “He learned it by doing it.”
Thomas directed traffic at the town’s busiest intersection until his forced retirement in 2011 at the age of 83.
In all, he served over 60 years with the Provincetown police, Golden said.
“It’s unprecedented,” said the chief. “He was on his feet more than six hours a day for, I don’t know, more than 40 years. He never missed a day. He never took a sick day. He loved the job. He loved the community and he really loved interacting with the kids.”
His granddaughter said, “He was 83 when they found out he was over the maximum retirement age of 65.”
That is not quite how it happened. In fact, training requirements for non-pension-collecting officers changed in 2005, forcing the police chief to take away his uniform and his gun, Golden said. But they couldn’t get him to give up directing traffic. He wore a polo shirt and kept at it, Golden said.
Former Police Chief Jeff Jaran cited privacy laws and would not disclose why he finally did force Thomas to retire, according to a 2011 article in the Provincetown Banner.
Carmen speculated that it was probably for his health.
“Who in their 80s stands all day and directs traffic?” she asked.
Then again, her grandfather had always been a bit of a daredevil.
Born on Freeman Street, Thomas dropped out of school in eighth grade at the age of 16. Due to head and leg injuries from a bicycle accident and other mishaps, he had missed a great deal of school. He suffered from motion sickness but fished for decades, an example of his extreme stubbornness, Carmen said.
He loved motorcycles and scuba diving. He was in his 50s when he joined the Blue Knights, a motorcycle club for law enforcement officers.
“When he was a kid he used to jump off the pier — and the water was pretty nasty.
You had to push the turds out of the way,” Carmen said. “He had an amazing talent for holding his breath underwater. He’d be the one to call if you needed something underwater. He became a skin diver, and then in 1981 he started scuba diving. He and David Ditacchio, a summer cop, used to go out and did recovery of lost items and recoveries of bodies.”
Thomas also loved music and, naturally, to dance. He got in trouble sometimes when he’d flip a girl while doing the jitterbug and her underwear would show, Carmen said.
His musical aspirations also caused him big trouble with his mother when he turned her new wash basin into an upright bass. He adored big band music, and when his wife, the late Lenora Thomas, had no interest in dancing he found other willing partners. He also enjoyed classic country and “he loved ’80s pop music,” said Carmen. “He loved Prince, George Michael, Snap, a huge range of music.”
When Carmen joined the punk band 86, “He didn’t really love it,” but he came to all her shows, she said.
In the 1980s he’d put on his Walkman and walk from his Provincetown home to Herring Cove and back. This would get him in shape for the summer season, she said.
His defining characteristic, besides stubbornness, was selflessness.
“He could have been a millionaire a million times over, but he just gave everything away,” Carmen said. “It was popular opinion he was living on a fat pension. But in fact he got the minimum from Social Security and had a reverse mortgage.”
His various jobs included fishing and driving a fish truck to New Bedford.
Losing his beloved brother, Tony Thomas, to ALS in the 1970s was so painful “it almost killed him before I was born,” Carmen said.
Thomas raised Carmen, she said. She called him “Poppa” and she and her mother, Donna Thomas, lived with Donald and Lenora in Provincetown.
Donald Thomas is survived by his daughter, Donna Thomas; his son, Steven Thomas of Provincetown; a sister, Marguerite Holway; a brother, Melvin; his grandchildren, Alicia, Carmen, and Heath; and two great-grandchildren, Razilee and Cyris.
No one knows how Donald Thomas mixed dance moves with directing traffic so perfectly. Carmen said he just always had a deep musical ability.
Yet it fit that he incorporated dance into the tedium of traffic because he was the kind of cop who always made people smile. He drew his gun only once, when he heard a noise behind him — it was only a cat, Carmen said. He never arrested anyone. Yet, he did hold down a rearing spooked horse that was pulling a carriage on Commercial Street. And he once smashed together the heads of two Hell’s Angels when they got out of control outside the Governor Bradford, Carmen said.
Among the hundreds of comments on Facebook about his death was this one from former Truro Police Chief Kyle Takakjian: “He taught many of us much about the human side of policing. A great man.”
Memorial plans are pending. Expressions of condolence for the family may be left in the guest book at gatelyfuneralservice.com.