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Former governor and congressman Charles Thone, 94, was a ‘true public servant’

March 9, 2018 GMT

Charles Thone — governor, congressman, Republican Party stalwart and one of Nebraska’s most highly regarded citizens — died Wednesday.

He was 94.

Official biographies list Thone’s first name as Charles. But Nebraskans knew him better as Charley, the unpretentious farm boy who adopted “Accentuate the Positive” as his personal theme song.

“Those who worked for him always used to call him ‘You’re-a-good-man, Charley Thone,’ ” said Kay Orr, Thone’s chief of staff and herself a former governor. “He was a good man. He was fair, he was honest.”

Thone grew up on a 400-acre farm north of Hartington, where his family raised cattle, corn and hogs. But his mother was determined to see him go further.

Thone did.

He reached the top political position in the state as governor, won election to Congress four times and achieved respect from both sides of the political aisle.

“In my view, Charley was one of Nebraska’s best governors,” said U.S. Appeals Court Judge Arlen Beam, a friend since their college days.

“He served in a period of economic uncertainty, especially in the farm economy, a matter not within the control of state government,” Beam said, “and he moved the state forward with hard work, skill and dexterity.”

On Wednesday night, Gov. Pete Ricketts ordered that flags be flown at half-staff from sunrise Thursday to sunset Tuesday.

Thone won election to Congress four times and served as the 1st District representative from 1971 to ’79.

In Congress, he championed farmers and ranchers and was a member of the House Agriculture Committee. He also served in 1979 on the House Select Committee on Assassinations, investigating the death of President John F. Kennedy.

He wound up concluding that Kennedy died not because of a conspiracy, but because of “a paranoid guy that thought he would have his day in the sun.”

“It was a fascinating assignment,” Thone recalled in a television interview. Former CBS newsman Walter Cronkite called Thone “the conscience of the committee.”

Thone came home to run for governor. Traveling to every part of the state and building on the networks he had forged through previous political activity, he was elected in 1978.

As governor, he focused on education, agricultural marketing and economic development.

“Education has been near and dear to me ever since it was drilled into my head by my mother when I was 6 or 7 years old,” Thone said.

But the state’s economic woes hurt Thone politically, and he suffered a bitter defeat in his 1982 re-election bid. He lost to Democrat Bob Kerrey. Later he said the defeat had been a blessing because it gave him a break from 12 years on the go.

“This was the best thing that happened to Charley Thone,” he said.

After leaving public office, Thone returned to the private practice of law. He had practiced law for more than a decade before his first bid for Congress.

This time around, he joined the firm of Erickson and Sederstrom in Lincoln. He continued working until age 87, well after the age when many people retire. Thone specialized in government relations and had clients around the country.

Thone didn’t stay out of politics for long.

He took his place as an elder statesman within the Republican Party, mentoring and advising other office-seekers. Among his successful protégées were Orr and former Attorney General Don Stenberg.

Thone had plenty of political experience to draw upon.

His first job was as deputy Nebraska secretary of state under then-Secretary of State Frank Marsh. Later, he was administrative assistant to U.S. Sen. Roman Hruska, R-Neb. He also had made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor.

Thone was two years out of law school, a young attorney in the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, when he was chosen as a delegate to his first GOP National Convention in 1952. He was a delegate to his 11th national convention in 2004.

Friends say Thone was on a first-name basis with every Republican president of his time.

He organized a “spontaneous” write-in campaign for Richard Nixon during the Nebraska primary of 1960. He was in the room as then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan weighed the attributes of vice presidential possibilities. He chaired George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Nebraska presidential campaign.

William Hastings, the late chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court, once said that Thone mounted his first campaign in 1953. He and his wife traveled the state in a successful bid to become president of the Nebraska Jaycees.

“He is and was and always has been a tireless worker and a great detail man,” Hastings said.

Thone also jumped into state political causes.

He led a bipartisan committee to gain support for establishing the Nebraska Court of Appeals. In 2004, he chaired the push to get lottery funds for the Nebraska State Fair.

“I think one of the more significant things about Charley is that after he left the Governor’s Office, he still became a real cheerleader for Nebraska and for Nebraska causes,” Sam Jensen, an attorney and longtime friend said before his death.

Thone met his wife, the former Ruth Raymond, in 1952. He was working in the Attorney General’s Office. She was editor of the University of Nebraska’s student newspaper. An interview led to a date, and the two were married in 1953.

The couple had three daughters, Ann, Mary and Amy.

In later years, the couple’s political paths diverged sharply, with Ruth Thone taking up more progressive causes. But friends said they continued to love and respect each other and they remained together.

Colleagues said Thone’s ability to respect political differences wasn’t confined to personal relationships. Despite his strong partisan loyalties, Thone maintained a sense of fair play and refused to use negative campaign tactics.

“The main thing about Charley Thone is he’s interested in people, interested in getting something done,” Jensen said. “He’s always very positive.”