Obituary: Passion for tennis defined Cliff Thomas

Renowned Northland sports personality Cliff Thomas has died peacefully at his home in Kamo, Whangarei, aged 86.

Clifford Donald Thomas was born in Opunake and from an early age was passionate about tennis. He became the Opunake junior champion in 1944 and went on to become the Taranaki senior champion. Sport was his work as well as his play, and his first employment was with the New Plymouth sports shop D.V. Sutherland.

In the early'50s he moved to Whangarei and started work with Wilkinson Sports, stringing racquets among other tasks. It was there that he met Catherine Stewart. The couple were married in 1953. He had earlier started his own sports business in a small room at the James Hotel Building.

He became a professional tennis coach and, in 1954, joined forces with Morrie McCoy to found the specialist sports store McCoy and Thomas in Rust Ave. The two met through Mr Thomas stringing Mr McCoy's racquets for him, and became close and lifelong friends.

The new firm was one of the first tenants in the then-new Crosby's Building.

The enterprise prospered and grew, eventually becoming the largest sports goods retailer in Northland. Mr Thomas sold his interest in the company after 37 years and, following his love of good food, purchased a lunch bar in town for a spell, which he ran with the help of his family.

He continued with his tennis coaching, being the most well-known coach in Northland history. By this time he had represented Northland at tennis, golf and badminton, and been Northland's tennis champion and badminton champion. He was also an accomplished table tennis and squash player and helped establish Whangarei's first squash club in the early '60s.

He was a keen big game fisherman and, in 1962, was elected president of the Whangarei Deep Sea Anglers Club. He was next a president of the New Zealand Big Game Fishing Council and after a lengthy break from fishing he returned to the sport in the'80s. In 1987 he was again elected president of the Whangarei Deep Sea Anglers Club and in his latter years, enjoyed the privilege of being a life member.

But tennis was his great love. "He was," says Des Lee (for many years secretary of the Northland Lawn Tennis Association), "synonymous with Northland tennis. He did so much, by way of coaching and sponsorship, especially of junior tennis.

"McCoy and Thomas also sponsored one of the courts when the Thomas Neale Family Memorial Park was built."

One of those sponsorships was the Thomas Cup, a tournament for Northland juniors. Each of the sub-associations - Mangonui, Hikurangi, mid-Northern, Northern Wairoa, Whangarei North, Whangarei South, mid-Western, Otamatea and Rodney - would field teams of 12 (six girls and six boys) and play home and away matches against each other.

Mr Thomas was heavily involved in social and community activities. At various times he was a member of the Kamo Lions Club, the Ngunguru Lions Club, and what was then the Whangarei Men's Club. He became president of the latter club, and in that capacity hosted a visit by then Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon.

Mr Thomas is survived by his wife, one daughter, three sons and six grandchildren.Graeme Barrow

- Northern Advocate

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