A Tribute to "T-Bone" Tom Fitzmorris (The Editorial)

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"T-Bone" Tom Fitzmorris (Editorial)

Story and photos copyright Al Ruscelli

Commentary on a Day of Tribute to T-Bone Tom Fitzmorris 

Id like to take some time to relate a few of my impressions of the day that was taken to honor the man known as T-Bone Tom Fitzmorris. From those who knew Mr. Fitzmorris well, I ask your forgiveness in advance for any lack of knowledge of the man that may show through in my story. I am perhaps one of the least qualified people to attempt to tell any of his story, so I will stick to the impressions left upon me by the events of the weekend of May 16-18, 1997. Those impressions were rather profound, to me at least, and it is my opinion their effect upon me represents in some way a microcosm of the larger overall effect this man had on his community in general.  

Last week -- Friday, May 16, to be exact -- I decided to make a trip over to T-Bone Toms restaurant in Kemah. A couple of things drew me there, but it was really one of those times when I couldn't exactly pinpoint the reason I decided to jump into my truck and take a ride to Kemah.  

I know it had something to do with procrastination and something to do with a few photographs I had taken several months ago -- photographs of T-Bone Toms restaurant taken late one January evening just about the time they were closing for the night. I had been out by the Kemah bridge taking night shots of the Pappadeaux restaurant across the water, trying to catch that just-perfect, multicolored reflection in the water of the channel. It was late and I was heading home. On impulse, thinking to take a photo or two of the restaurants neon-lit front, I pulled into the parking lot at T-Bone Toms. The lights were still on inside, but not all of them. The chairs had all been stacked on the tables, but I couldn't see anyone inside and the parking lot was empty. I decided to take a chance and take a couple of shots. I was nervous that someone might confront me for stopping there so late. However, overcoming my reservations, I took a couple of long exposure shots of the restaurants front and neon lights. I didn't get arrested by the police or confronted by anyone. I simply took my shots and went home. As far as the photos go, I was really just playing around and didn't have any idea how they would come out. As it came about, all of the photos turned out pretty well. It was a lucky night for photos and I ended up with a couple of portfolio-quality shots.

Somewhere along the line, it became a practice of mine to give away copies of certain photos, ones I liked particularly well and ones I thought others might like as well -- especially if they were photos of something that might be particularly close to someone's heart. After I got those photos of T-Bone Toms Restaurant developed and printed, I got it in my mind that these might just fall in that same category. I thought to myself, Yes, Id like to give a couple of these to the restaurant owner.  But it was one of those thoughts I was only half sure about, and since I didn't really know anyone at T-Bone Toms, and since I didn't know how they would receive me or my photos, I waited (OK, I procrastinated) and never brought them copies of the photos.  

When I read the copy of The Enterprise that I had picked up early on Friday (back again to May 16), I read the brief item on the front page concerning T-Bone Tom Appreciation Day. I had heard two days earlier, from some tennis player buddies of mine, that Tom Fitzmorris, A.K.A. T-Bone Tom, was not doing well, that he had cancer and perhaps did not have long to live. When I read the article in The Enterprise, it just confirmed what I had already been told. It also made a little clearer the banner that I had seen earlier in the week strapped to the fence outside of Kemah park -- the one that invited everyone to come and celebrate T-Bone Tom Appreciation Day.  

Back to the procrastination part:  I knew I had waited too long to deliver the copies of the photographs I had wanted to deliver a long time ago. Well, not that it was absolutely too late, but it was too late to deliver them during a time when there wasn't something more important going on, a time when I could just say Hey, and Hi, and How do you like these?   

So, that evening I ate a late dinner, went though my photographs, picked out two of the best shots of the restaurant, and headed over to T-Bone Toms.  

Since I haven't yet said so in a direct way, I need to say now (and I say so with a feeling that is something akin to guilt) that I did not know Tom Fitzmorris when I went over to his restaurant that Friday night. Although I had heard his name many times, and almost everyone else that I knew in the area seemed to know him, I did not know the man. That much was, and is, my loss.  

When I arrived at T-Bone Toms that night, I carried a copy of The Enterprise with me so that I could explain to whomever I met there that I took pictures for the newspaper. I thought it might serve as a good lead-in to presenting them with the photos I had taken back in January and would also give me the opportunity to ask permission to take photos at the T-Bone Tom Appreciation Day event scheduled for Sunday, May 18. (After finding out that there would be such a day in honor of the man, I knew that I should make myself available to take at least a couple of representative shots to put in the next edition of The Enterprise as a follow-up to the brief announcement in the last edition.)   

After entering T-Bone Toms, I managed to fumble my way through an introduction to the first employee I met at the counter, and she kindly called floor manager Linda Hansen out to talk to me. Even though it was rather late, nearing closing time, and though she was still busy with the remaining customers, Linda took the time to offer me a seat and some ice tea while I clumsily thrust my photos at her and explained that I was a part-time photographer, etc., etc. Much to my relief, she seemed to like the photos. I was able to relax considerably. (Thank you, Linda.)   

I told Linda about taking the night photos some months earlier. I told her I wanted them to have copies of those photos (See?  Here they are -- if you like them, that is . . .). I told her Id like to come out to the park on Sunday and take photos for the paper, and perhaps even stay for the day and chronicle the entire event if it would be appropriate. My relief grew as Linda listened patiently to everything I said, even encouraging me to go ahead with my wish to do a follow-up story with accompanying photos.  

Linda then introduced me to Bill Burkhart and they took some time to explain a little about T-Bone Tom to me. They let me know the who, what, when, where, why, and how of T-Bone Tom Appreciation Day. They told me a little about the past, a little about the present, and a lot about why they were doing what they were doing.  

The event had been in the planning stages for about 2 to 3 weeks; a short time by anyone's standards to accommodate the size of crowd and the agenda that was planned for the day. Dedicated committee members can make all the difference in the world, however, and by that weekend, all was ready. There would be a parade, enough barbecue to feed an army, bands, presentations, and an auction. Once the ball started rolling on this thing, it was unstoppable. Everyone wanted in on it. Everyone. Family, employees at the restaurant, friends, politicians, the police and fire departments, local business folks. Everyone. After years of giving to the community, it appeared that an opportunity was being presented by which the community could give a little bit back to Mr. Fitzmorris. 

Its a bit hard to describe everything I saw on that Sunday. Linda had prepared me as best she could for what to expect and what to watch for in terms of taking a few good photos. She had also explained to me that even though this event was technically T-Bone Tom Appreciation Day, Mr. Fitzmorris himself would have none of it being only his day. He wanted it to be everybody's day if he had anything to say about it. He wanted this to be a day for the community. He wanted anyone who had differences with anyone else in the community to lay down those differences for a while (hmmmm . . . maybe permanently?), and come on out and be part of this day.  

I remember all of the preparation that I saw, the people volunteering to set up in the gazebo, under the pavilion, in the main building, the grounds being prepared for however many people would show up that day.  

I remember hearing the approach of the parade and rushing out to the corner of 6th St. and Hwy. 146 just in time to get a picture of the red limousine carrying the Fitzmorrises, Tom and Carol standing right up through the sunroof and waving to the crowd, Bill Burkhart leaning out the window with a camcorder, perhaps even taking a picture of me taking a picture of them. I watched son David Fitzmorris driving the red, 1960 Thunderbird convertible close behind the car carrying his dad and mom and looked off into the distance at the coolest line of classic cars, mixed with police and fire department vehicles, all coming down the road and on past me, a trail of vehicles rounding the corner to reach the final destination behind the park. Horns were honking and lights were flashing and I was firing my camera at the little five-to-six car segments of the parade that I could fit into each frame. It was an awesome little stretch of time to be standing on that corner. As the last vehicles passed me, I remember rushing back again to the other side of the park so not to miss the limousines arrival and the entrance of Mr. and Mrs. Fitzmorris into the park.  

I remember feeling good. It was a kind of high to be out there that day, knowing and feeling everyone's anticipation of the good times to be had and the memories to be shared as well as the memories to be made. There would be song and dance and food and stories to tell and a thousand or more people sharing it all. This would be a day for Kemah and the entire area to remember.  

That's the kind of day it was. For the most part, that's the kind of day it was supposed to be. Because we shared and talked and listened and sang and ate and felt good.  

When Tom Fitzmorris made his trip through the crowd after all the speeches were done, the enthusiastic press that surrounded him spoke for itself. Everyone wanted to say Hi or shake his hand or smile their encouragement at him. We all had the chance because he gave it to us.  

But -- there was still just a little bit of an edge to it. Just that little edge of knowing why we were all there, and knowing that every reason why we were there was not necessarily a good or fun reason. There was that part of the reason that we were there that had to do with necessity. The necessity to support someone in the community who needed and deserved the support because times right now, for him or his family, were not necessarily good.

The point was made very emphatically with the developments of the afternoon. When Tom was taken to the hospital in the early afternoon, word spread and everyone grew uneasy. The tragic and heartbreaking news of the later afternoon was tough to bear. It was too soon. It couldn't happen today, not today. We weren't ready yet, no one was ready yet, not for Tom to go, not yet . . .  

But it wasn't for us to say. What happened and the way it happened and the time it happened were not for us to say.  

That evening, in T-Bone Toms Restaurant, I was honored to join hands with a small group of T-Bone Toms friends. Some were employees, some were old associates -- all were friends. We formed a circle and joined one another in prayer for Mr. Fitzmorris, for T-Bone Tom. But for the events of the day, I would have felt too much the outsider to even consider joining this circle. Not for lack of desire to do so, but for fear of intruding on a private moment, for fear of being the one outsider, the one who didn't belong; the one who didn't really know Tom. I guess this was yet another moment of Mr. Fitzmorris influence reaching out to touch someone (this time, me) in a positive and caring way, because I was accepted into that small group without so much as a disapproving glance from anyone there.  

We joined hands for perhaps five minutes while several in the circle took turns with prayer or words of appreciation for Mr. Fitzmorris. For the second (the third?) time that day, I felt tears coming to my eyes. My nose started running. I wanted to raise my hand and wipe at my eyes and face, but I didn't want to break the circle. All I could manage was a sniffle or two and a few blinks to stem the tears. Just as I had earlier, I wondered at the source of my emotion. I did not know Mr. Fitzmorris, at least not personally. But, I was very quickly beginning to understand at least a little bit about the kind of man he must have been, if through nothing more than his effect on everyone here.  

While the people around me spoke, I felt tempted to say a few words myself, but again I felt out of place. Instead I lent only a silent prayer to the words of the others: Thank you Lord. And thank you, Tom. Thank you for letting me somehow share in this day. Thank you for letting me meet these people, some of the most kind and caring and giving and compassionate people it has been my privilege to meet. God bless you, Tom, for being the man you must have been to this community and in this life. God bless you for your continuing influence. 

I guess that, in a strange sort of way, I finally got to meet the man I never really met. I had the honor of seeing him through the eyes of a couple of thousand of his friends. Ill never forget that day, and Ill never forget what I was shown about love and compassion, and how much one man, having such an abundance of both, can come to affect those around him. Thanks again, Tom. God bless you, and God bless your family and friends, every one of them.  

An old friend of mine once asked me what I thought the most important thing in the world was. I told him that I wasn't sure. What is the most important thing in the world? I asked him. "It's love," he said. "Not money, not possessions, not anything you can own, not a fancy car or a big house. Love is the most important thing in the world. Do you know why?" he asked. Without waiting for me to answer, he said, "Because love brings you closer to God." 

Once in a while, I think about what that friend told me. I am thinking about it again today.  

Its always interesting to me to see how good, loving, caring people affect the lives of others in their communities. Sometimes the circles of effect are fairly small, not going much beyond a tightly knit group of family and friends. Sometimes those circles are large, stretching out well into the community in general and even beyond. In either case, good people can have a rather profound effect on those who get to know them, those whose lives are touched by them.  

I had the opportunity to see a little bit of a good mans effect on his community last weekend. I had the privilege to see the respect, admiration, and love that can be generated for, and by, someone who is perhaps more comfortable with giving than getting.  

I guess what it comes down to is that a few things seem a little clearer to me today; the things that really matter in life, like the way we choose to live our lives. The actions we choose to take and the causes we choose to support. The way that we care about the people around us, and the depth to which we are willing to show it. I have to ask myself, How does my approach to life affect those around me?  Am I kind when I should be kind, do I take actions that I truly believe to be good and right actions, do I do unto others as I would have them do unto me? 

I wish right now like I wished last Friday night that I had taken the time to go over to the restaurant and introduce myself a few months ago when I first had the notion. Among the smaller and least significant things, Id like to know whether Mr. Fitzmorris would have liked my pictures of his place or not. More importantly, I would have liked to have known him. But, I cant wish back something that didn't happen that way. All I can do is keep plugging along and think about the next time when want to introduce myself to someone. Maybe next time Ill summon up the courage a little more quickly and just go do it.


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