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Thomas tome details life for which he is grateful

| Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008

"The damn vacation is over," said the grandfather of Clarence Thomas. He wasn't announcing Labor Day or the start of a new school year. He was taking two grandsons under his roof when his daughter, a single mother, couldn't cope.

Clarence, who was 8 then but is 60 now and a U.S. Supreme Court justice, learned hard work, tough love and responsibility. He and his younger brother washed dishes and swept the floor in the house in a segregated black neighborhood of Savannah, Ga. They got up early to help in the old man's business, delivering coal, ice and heating oil along residential streets.

The boys attended Catholic schools, still segregated then but staffed by demanding Irish nuns, who "seemed almost lenient by comparison with my all-seeing grandfather."

For 10 summers, the brothers worked a tiny family farm just out of town. They mended fences, cut wood, tended chickens and pigs "from sun to sun." And learned that blisters on hands eventually harden into calluses.

Years later, Daddy, which is what they called Grandpa, explained he was determined to keep the boys out of trouble on the hot summer streets of Savannah. They could watch limited television but had no time for sports. However, "visits to the nearby Carnegie Library were always allowed."

Clarence Thomas went on to graduate from college and Yale Law School. But he came to feel that his law grades, although fully earned thanks to the work ethic inspired by Daddy, were cheapened by the "affirmative action" that helped him and other blacks get into Yale. To this day, he won't hang his Ivy League law diploma in his office. It's in his basement at home -- with a 15-cent cigar sticker on the frame. Unable to ignore were his student loans. He was still paying them off when he donned his Supreme Court robes.

Thomas has lived with a lot of anger. He feels guilt about the breakup of his first marriage and admits he used to drink too much, but he quit that years ago -- cold turkey.

He has steamed about, suffered from -- and fought -- racial discrimination. Yet as a conservative, he's accused of playing "Uncle Tom" for opposing entitlements that he believes actually hurt the advancement of black people. Like school busing. Moving them around does underprivileged children no favors, he believes, by switching the focus from education to a feel-good liberal gesture .

All this, plus the story of how the Supreme Court's only black justice got through a truly disgraceful Senate confirmation process, is told in the book he brought out last year under the title "My Grandfather's Son" (HarperCollins, N.Y., $26.95, 289 pages). Would you believe a not-only readable but actually suspenseful Washington memoir?

Gratefully, Justice Thomas says he was rescued from "a dismal life of ignorance, perhaps even of crime, a life lost before it started." It took him many years and hard knocks to realize that "I had been raised by the greatest man I have ever known."

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