Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Imagine, then, what happened when the news came out on Saturday night that Tom had died of a heart attack of the age of 61. Who could put his life into the proper perspective? No one.
Basketball star Bill Russell once said, when he heard about the death of Wilt Chamberlain, "I am unspeakably injured." Many runners in Western New York have that feeling now.
I could pinpoint more or less precisely the time when I started to get to know Tom. He was the subject of my third running column back in February 2005. I may have known him slightly before that through mutual friends, but we hadn't really talked one-on-one. That changed quickly. For nearly 10 years, I think he was the most quoted person in the column.
That's because talking to Tom was one of the major benefits of the job. We basically had the same goals for the sport locally, even if we approached them in different roles. Tom and I both wanted the sport to grow in Western New York. We both thought that the Buffalo Marathon and the YMCA Turkey Trot could become signature events on the running calendar. We believed that there should be a way to honor the great runners of Western New York in the past. When so much is in common, it's easy to strike up a conversation ... and a friendship.
Whenever I needed to know what was going on in running circules, Tom would point me in a direction or introduce me to a person. In fact, he did so many introductions that it was nice last month to reverse the roles. In one of the last times we were together, both of us turned up at the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner. Tom was somewhat excited about seeing some of the ex-Sabres in the crowd, so I called Derek Smith and Don Luce over to say hello. Tom was thrilled.
Lives often can be divided into different "compartments," with relationships coming in different ways. In Tom's case, I knew few other members of his family, even though it was a big and happy one - based on the frequent Facebook pictures of reunions and events. I can't say we ever talked about his job at the NFTA; we never got around to it. Tom even had a "bridge" compartment, as he had a regular group of card players that participated in that particular game. He had the chance to play bridge with the legendary Warren Buffett. Even though I knew how to play the game, I never did sit across the table from him and be his dummy. So to speak.
No one locally, though, had a bigger "running compartment" than Tom. He had started the sport simply with a need to get in shape, and ran constantly for the rest of his life. Tom was always in great condition, except when he had gave in to the temptation of a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner every so often. It was the only time he had an ounce of fat on him during the time I knew him. But the act of running wasn't quite enough involvement for Tom. When he had the chance to move into the business side of the sport, he jumped in with, um, both feet.
At the end, he was the director of the Buffalo Marathon, director of the YMCA Turkey Trot, president of the Checkers Athletic Club (which included many of the area's best runners), and the leader of the Western New York Running Hall of Fame. Oh, and he had a small business in which he designed logos for shirts given out at races. Where did he have the time to have any other compartments?
One way to do so was to find good people to help him. Tom used to say that he was no genius, but that he had surrounded himself with top-notch assistants. He was kidding himself in a sense; it takes a special type of person to be able to persuade people to give up their spare time to work on a project - particularly without pay.
Tom was always willing to talk about running and runners. Our last conversation was rather typical of that. I was running in the Sarkin race in October, jogging down Delevan Ave. at my usual pace. Suddenly I heard Tom shout out some encouragement while doing a training run in the other direction. This sort of greeting, by the way, was a regular event for him; he knew everyone. This time, though, Tom went past me, turned around, caught up with me (not too hard for him, a former 2:35 marathoner), and started talking with me. This went on for more than a mile. At one point, Tom said that he thought we might be disturbing the woman running in our vicinity. She turned and said, "Oh, no. You guys are really interesting."
What's more, Tom was always willing to listen to new ideas. For example, I always believed that the Buffalo Marathon should sell licensed merchandise (shirts, hats, bags, etc.) in order to connect runners to the race. Tom replied that the Marathon didn't have the extra money needed to produce the items in advance of their sale. A couple of years later, I heard that a local company might be interested in supplying "official" items for the Marathon, giving the race a portion of the proceeds. I told Tom about it on Monday; he had completed a deal on Friday. That has to be a business record for speed. It's not merely good to find someone who appreciate your ideas and is willing to act on them; one cherishes it. Tom realized how that sort of action builds loyalty.
Admittedly, Tom and I were on different sides of the journalistic fence. We both realized that if something went wrong with one of his races, I'd have to ask the tough questions, and he'd have to answer them. But that never proved to be an obstacle for us. Our on-the-record conversations featured as many smiles as the personal ones.
Sudden deaths don't happen in your life very often, but they are shocking and unforgettable when they occur. In Tom's case that was particularly true because he was so active. His Facebook page became an instant memorial, with people from all portions of his life saying how much of a difference his attitude and upbeat approach made to them. Tom had a history of heart disease in his family. It was often as if he was determined to cram as much as possible into the years that he did have. If so, he certainly succeeded.
It's often said at such times that a departed person can not be replaced. That's very true in Tom's case; it will take five or six people to take on all of his jobs. Hopefully they'll carry Tom's dream with them and make running an even larger part of our community.
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