Wednesday, September 2, 2015
Remembering My Old Friend Tom
It was 14 years ago today that my friend and co-worker Tom Bell died. I gave a eulogy at his funeral, and this is what I said. It just seemed fitting to share it here today.
As I was deciding what to say this morning, I came across a quote from the late Sir Winston Churchill. It seemed particularly appropriate for today.
As he neared the end of his life, Churchill said: “I am indeed ready to meet my Maker. But whether or not my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
Tom Bell worked for Atlantic Stainless for more than 15 years. He was our Sales Manager, and the best salesmen I have ever seen. He was a dedicated professional, and inspired tremendous loyalty from his customers – some of whom are here today.
Over the course of 15 years Tom and I became friends – in between the times we were fighting and arguing, of course. As those who knew him well will attest, Tom Bell despised being told he couldn’t do something. And as his immediate boss, I was often the one who had to tell him “No”. He hated that – almost as much, I must admit, as I enjoyed it.
Tom and I had a mutual understanding. He always let me think that I was in charge, and I always looked the other way when he did all the things I told him not to do. But Tom got away with things no one else did because he earned the right. For 15 years he gave our company his complete and total loyalty, the first one there in the morning and the last one out the door at night. He cared about his job, his company, and his customers.
But beyond his professional side, I got to know Tom the person. Tom Bell loved to try and make everyone think he was some kind of tough guy. He growled a lot, talked a good game, and tried to intimidate you right off the bat. But if you got past the blustery exterior, you soon discovered that unless you were trying to sell him something, Tom was really just a big pushover.
And most of all – Tom loved to talk. If you didn’t stop him, Tom would have talked 24 hours a day. Sometimes I would go to the office men’s room just to get away from him as he was yakking on and on about the Red Sox or whatever else struck his fancy that day. That didn’t stop him though – he talked to me through the door like nothing ever happened. Once Tom got going, you just couldn’t stop him.
There were two major topics that Tom talked about more than anything else. Going in reverse order, the second of those was the Carver Little League.
Tom and his family are the only people any of us in the office know in Carver. Despite that, I bet most of us could recite the starting line-up for the Padres team every year Tom coached them. He would tell us who was pitching that day, who he was planning to pitch next week, how his shortstop was getting so much better on ground balls, and how he was going to draft Jimmy’s brother next season. We had absolutely no idea who or what he was talking about, but that never stopped him.
Tom loved kids, and he loved the Carver Little League. He tried to pretend that he only coached to help the kids, but the truth is he loved being around them. Every year he would tell us this was his last year – and then he would do it again. The trunk of his company car was always full of equipment bags, gloves, balls and bats. The only time he ever asked to leave work early was when he had a game that night.
And he despised what he called “Serial Coaches”, those who placed winning above the welfare of the kids on his or her team. Tom knew every kid, knew their problems, their family situations, their needs. He brought them home, bought them ice cream and pizza, and taught them baseball. But more than that, he also was an authority figure, someone they respected and they looked to for advice. And he never let them down. He was truly a symbol of what youth sports leaders can and should be all about.
The other thing Tom talked about constantly, more than anything else, were his girls, Diana and Kym. Okay, maybe Pat got thrown in there once in a while too, but most of the time we were all regaled with the stories of how beautiful, how talented, how smart, and how amazing his two daughters were.
When Diana got a new job, we all knew about it – in great detail. When Kym made the varsity basketball team, even the UPS driver who came to Atlantic heard all about it. When Diana straightened out a guy who had gotten rude with her, Tom bragged about it for weeks. And every time Kym wrote a paper that impressed Tom, we had to listen to it time and time again. To say Tom was a proud father would be the understatement of the ages.
Tom’s love for his family was simple, complete, and unconditional. It extended beyond Pat and the girls, to his mother, his late father, his mother-in-law, his brother and sister and their families too. It wasn’t always a gushy, sentimental kind of love. It was a quiet but solid commitment to family that was ingrained in him.
But I am not here today to portray Tom as some kind of saint – he definitely wouldn’t want me to do that. The truth is he could be downright irritating much of the time, and lacked a lot of the finer social skills – or at least, just never cared enough to use them. He thought there were only two ways to do things – his way, and the wrong way. He made the proverbial bull in the china shop look petite and dainty. He could never walk across the entire office without bumping into at least one person. And he should be in the Guinness Book of World Records for using the word “OK” more in one lifetime than any other human being. He had a style that was – well, uniquely Tom Bell.
I would give anything just to have Tom walk into my office one more time complaining about one of his orders that hadn’t shipped yet. I wish I could hear just one more Little League story, one more of his corny jokes. It is so hard to believe he won’t be there after this Christmas, wearing whatever his daughters gave him for a present. I’d give anything just to see him scowl one more time.
But while none of that will happen, we can all step back and thank Tom for what he added to our lives. While our heart goes out to his family for this loss, we also join them in celebrating the good life he lived. When it came to the important things, Tom never took a single step back. Right or wrong, he was always consistent – and it is hard to ask for more than that.
To close my remarks, I would like to read an old toast that I told to Tom one day, and he always liked a lot. It sums up the spirit of Tom Bell, especially the one we knew at work for 15 years. It goes like this:
“Here’s to you, and here’s to me, and may we never disagree. But if we do – the hell with you. Here’s to me.”
So long Tom. I’ll never forget you.