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story.lead_photo.caption J.R. Thomas, director of Arkansas Tobacco Control, is a Searcy native who spent 30 years with the Searcy Police Department and served as police chief for 18 years. - Photo by Curt Youngblood

— J.R. Thomas’ cellphone rang as he sat at his desk in his Little Rock office. It was his daughter, Jai

Michelle Thomas.

“I’m sitting here being interviewed by the Democrat-Gazette,” he told her just before putting the phone on speaker.

“I feel that he was one of the best police officers and chief of police that Searcy ever had,” she said through the phone about her father. “He is calm under pressure, and he holds everyone together.”

She said he is also calm under pressure as a father, an actor and now as director of Arkansas Tobacco Control.

But before he became director of ATC in 2007, he spent 30 years at the Searcy Police Department, 18 of those as chief.

Thomas grew up in Searcy, and he said his mother, Lola Thomas, was a single parent and worked three jobs to send him to Harding Academy from the first through 10th grades. He then transferred to Searcy High School, graduating from there in 1971.

“I had an unbelievable precious mother,” he said.

Lola was 42 when she had Thomas, who was her only child.

“My father died when I was 6. … I never knew it was difficult, but it was difficult on her,” Thomas said. “She had a strong personality, and it seemed like she worked all the time and pushed me to do better.”

After Thomas graduated from high school, he spent a year at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. He moved back to Searcy, worked for Walmart and joined the Searcy Police Department in 1977.

“The police chief, Dean Hunter, who hired me, knew me as a young kid,” Thomas said, then laughed. “He wrote me a ticket on my motorcycle when I was 15 for no helmet and no driver’s license. I had to work that off throwing papers for the Daily Citizen.”

When Thomas began working for the Police Department, he said, only five police officers were employed.

“When I became chief in 1989, we had an eight-man police department,” he said. “We had three rooms and a bathroom; then we moved into an 18,000-square-foot, two-story building.”

He said the move and the increase in the department took place over a 10-year period. He said when he left, there were around 50 officers.

“We accomplished a lot of things,” he said about his time at the department. “Tax increases for fire and police — that really helped. The inner structure of the community needed to be able to support the growth.”

Thomas said one of the aspects of being a police officer that he misses is helping people.

“As a police chief in my own town, I was able to help more people, … and I truly felt good I was able to do things to help,” he said. “I felt compelled, because the community helped me grow up. I had a lot of mothers and a lot of fathers.”

A few months shy of retiring from the Police Department, Thomas’ longtime friend Gov. Mike Beebe asked if he would be interested in taking the job as director of Arkansas Tobacco Control. Without missing a step, Thomas transitioned into the director’s position in January 2007.

As director, Thomas said, he doesn’t deal directly with people in the communities.

“I miss that,” he said. “I miss the people and not being able to get out and help someone. … Policemen do their jobs, and they do it well, but sometimes they don’t know all the facts.”

He related a story about a 15-year-old boy speeding through Searcy in a truck. He had no driver’s license, so a rookie police officer wrote him a ticket and let him go.

The next day, Thomas said, he discovered that the boy was going to the pharmacy to get medication for his dying mother because he had no one else to go for him.

Although Thomas isn’t out on the streets directly helping people, he is indirectly affecting many people in Arkansas by enforcing state and federal tobacco laws.

One of the issues the ATC is cracking down on, Thomas said, is retailers selling cigarettes to minors.

The ATC, an agency that regulates tobacco permits and all tobacco sales in the state, is also an arm of law enforcement.

“In 2008, we were second in the nation for lowering the sale to minors, and we’ve been in the top five since,” he said.

Thomas said one problem the agency is trying to eliminate is single sales of cigarettes to minors.

“That bothers me quite a bit,” he said. “Parents don’t know their kids are stopping by on the way to or from school and buying one cigarette and smoking it on the way.”

There are high fines and penalties for single sales, which also open up the potential of tampering with the cigarette prior to selling it to a minor.

The agency also enforces a law that prohibits smuggling untaxed tobacco into the state.

“If you go over the state line and buy 11 cartons and bring them back into Arkansas, it’s a felony,” Thomas said. “That’s over $100 in taxes not paid in Arkansas.”

Thomas is serious about law enforcement, but his jovial nature still shines through, especially when he talks about his eight years of acting with the Center on the Square Dinner Theater in downtown Searcy.

“I really enjoy that,” he said, recalling his first play: Barefoot in the Park.

“It was a tremendous stress reliever,” he said about working with the theater. “I’m just a big ham anyway, and I love working with a bunch of different people.”

Thomas still calls Searcy home, and he said it’s worth the 45-minute daily commute to Little Rock.

In Searcy, he serves on the advisory board of the Wilbur Mills Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility. He is also an active member of the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Staff writer Jeanni Brosius can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or jbrosius@arkansasonline.com.

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