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Remembering Tom Russell
I remember very clearly meeting Tom Russell for the first time at Huntington Lake in 1969. I was 6 years old and our families had been close for generations going back to the 1920s in Fresno. In 1967, my father bought a cabin just up the hill from the Jertberg/Russell cabin and so began summers of spending time with Tommy and Jimmy, whose mother Joan was a close friend of my Aunt Mary’s, and whose grandfather Judge Gilbert Jertberg was a friend of my grandfather John P. Phillips and a buddy to my father. Our families could not have been closer.
Tom knew of my birth and had seen me before I was old enough to remember, but I especially remember that first summer up at Huntington, being small enough to ride on his shoulders as we walked from the dock back to the cabin — or how we swam at the Indian Pools just above the lake which seemed like a magical and secret place.
The summer season ended and I went back to Fresno to start the First Grade and Tom went back to Boston where he met his wife Linda. The following summer, Tom brought Linda to Huntington and I became their little friend — I was not unfamiliar with being befriended by young couples — a young Swedish woman named Solfrid was living with my grandmother in those days, and she and her boyfriend used to take me on excursions to Coursegold — they introduced me to Beatles music, Peter Paul & Mary, lots of modern things. I discovered that I loved being with older people (older to me although they were only in their early twenties).
I spent that summer of 1970 with Tom & Linda at Huntington Lake and they were married around that time. They were about to leave for a magical place called Kirby Lonsdale in England and even invited me to come stay with them. It was not to be.
I pretty much saw Tom & Linda every summer at Huntington Lake and sometimes in Fresno when they lived there briefly. After a few years, Tom decided to go to law school in Sacramento and during his senior year in 1976, I went to stay with Tom and Linda in their Sacramento apartment on Howe Avenue, and accompanied Tom to San Francisco as he was clerking for Judge Browning at the time. During that trip, we stayed at Tom’s step-sister’s apartment in Berkeley, and had dinner at a local macro-biotic restaurant (something completely foreign to the Fresno culture of the time). The next day I went into San Francisco with Tom, riding BART for the first time.
The following June, 1977, Tom graduated from McGeorge and I accompanied Jimmy, his girlfriend Deborah and mother Joan up to Sacramento for the graduation. It was around this time that I learned Tom and Linda were going to move to Salzburg, Austria since Tom was going to study International Law. They again invited me to come live with them in Austria, but it was not to be.
I finally did see Europe for the first time in 1978 and came back to Fresno a changed young man. I saw the world very differently from that moment on, and I knew that there was a big world out there to see and explore. I loved how Tom influenced me to look beyond my own back yard and venture out into the world.
Next came high school for me and pretty soon, Tom and Linda were expecting a child – in 1980, their son Kristian was born as I was nearing completion of high school. I went away to college which kept me busy, and the demands of raising a little boy, renovating a house and developing a legal career kept Tom busy as well. The frequency of our communication slowed but never diminished in spirit.
I clearly remember on one of those summer days at Huntington Lake, perhaps when I was about 8 or so, that Tom told me matter-of-factly that we don’t really die, that we simply transition into a new state of being. I was raised in the Presbyterian Church by my mother and went to Sunday School, so I was versed in notions of Heaven and an after-life. But Tom made it real to me – so real that it almost went without saying.
As a child I even thought that perhaps I should think about becoming a Christian Scientist like Tom. I buckled at the idea that I couldn’t go to a doctor if I was sick and in essence, it really wasn’t for me, but I so much wanted to be more like Tom; I wanted his strength and I just loved him so much.
Tom was so cool too. He gave me a copy of the “Blue Moves” album in 1976 when it came out, a rather expensive double album at the time, to this day one of my favorites. Around the time of Tom’s law school graduation, I remember being taken to see “Annie Hall,” and a lifelong fascination with all things Woody emerged from that moment on.
I loved Tom. I was 6 in 1969 and I was 23 in 1986 – seventeen years of friendship to that point and it was clear to me that Tom was in essence an older brother/father figure to me, a source of strength with clarity in his thinking that was inspiring.
In 1986, I spent part of the summer with Tom. Around this time, Linda separated and was living in Finland with Kristian; Tom was commuting from his home in Jerseyville to the courthouse in Springfield near where Abraham Lincoln lived before the Presidency. Tom had always been open to new ideas and that summer, some friends had convinced him to think about the UFOs photographed by a Swiss farmer named Billy Meier. I suppose that by now they have been proven to be fake, but for fun we would drive out along a country road and just stop the car along some cornfields and stare into the starry night hoping to catch a glimpse of the mothership.
A few years after that summer of 1986, my life changed once again – I met my future wife, who was from Finland, the same country Linda escaped to with Kristian following her separation from Tom. Tom and I began to see less of each other but at the same time, I felt a very powerful desire to care for young Kristian.
In the early 1990s, Linda moved to the Bay Area with Kristian, and I was living with my wife in San Francisco at the time – we saw Kristian a few times before we suddenly moved to London in 1996. I never had the chance to be much of an influence on Kristian, but I did manage to slip into his vocabulary a few items, such as the “must have” Dire Straits album or the killer collection of Eric Clapton tracks.
By 2002, I was a father myself and occasionally I would see Kristian independent of Tom or Linda — he was by then a young man of 22 who had grown up so quickly while I was still living in London. He was no longer the little boy who I watched over in 1988 at Tom’s wedding to Sarah, or whom I proudly toured around Fresno with around that time, taking him to visit friends at the Fresno Art Museum or elsewhere. Back then, he was eight years old, not much older than I was when I met Tom.
In 2005, Tom retired from the bench and on a spur of the moment, I decided to fly out to Jerseyville to surprise him for his retirement celebrations. I flew all morning to St. Louis, rented a car and drove to the Courthouse in Jerseyville. Standing outside and calling Tom from a cell phone, I reached him inside the Courthouse, and suggested he come downstairs to let me in. What a laugh we had.
Over the next couple of days, we recounted our summer together in Jerseyville in 1986, and I visited with people I remembered meeting 19 years previously and who I had seen on sporadic visits.
In the years since, I moved to New York and Tom built a house in Guatemala. I knew of his interest in flying of course and heard him talk off and on about flying again. More recently he spoke of buying a plane. Then I heard he bought a plane. Then I heard he was planning to fly it down to his new home in Guatemala.
I never really gave the danger of flying a second thought. In fact, to be honest, if Tom had invited me to go flying with him, I probably would have jumped into the plane and gone with him without giving my wife or daughter a second thought. It’s as if being with him was a danger-free zone – that real danger was only a fiction and that in reality we were safe and secure in the knowledge of our wellbeing.
In fact, I was more concerned about bandits in Guatemala, the kind with machetes who recently accosted him on a hiking trail near his house — the ones who demand money. One of the bandits reached around to Tom’s back pocket to take his wallet, and Tom firmly took the man’s arm and said, “no” as if instructing the bandit about how to be a better person in the process (e.g., you don’t take, you wait to have the money given to you). This was what worried me frankly, that one of these bandits would not be influenced by Tom’s strength of character (because of desperation, fear or drugs) and that I’d learn someday that Tom had been kidnapped for ransom, a not uncommon occurrence in some Latin American countries.
I never really gave the plane much thought. I hadn’t even seen a photo of the new plane and didn’t really think too much about it. I had an e-mail about how the four-day trip from California to Guatemala was going and replied to Tom’s brother Jimmy that I thought a commercial flight would have been a lot less hassle.
And then, Tuesday, January 11, 2011, I get the call. I had been blissfully unaware the night before while attending the opera “Tosca” at the Met that my friend Tom had died that morning. My immediate reaction was disbelief, but Jimmy’s broken tone over the telephone spoke the truth, that my friend, my dear friend was no more.
Of course I had been a bit out of practice. I was twenty years into a relationship of my own with a nine-year-old child and I’d forgotten that Tom didn’t believe in death – that it was simply a transition to another astral plane or something like that. Tom died doing what he had always wanted to do since he was a teenager, and he never feared death. Tom was fine where he was – it was just the rest of us who adored him who can barely breathe let alone see through our grief.
Tom had become translucent, as transparent and pure as Mary Baker Eddy instructed. He slipped away and would not want any fuss. But I will carry a piece of Tom in my memory for as long as I live. I feel so fortunate that my little daughter Matilda had a few precious moments with him, and I will keep his spirit alive with her so that she doesn’t forget him.
Tom knew me my whole life, and I suppose I knew him 42 of my 48 years. I thought we had more time. We talked sometimes of building a commune together, where we would build houses near each other on a common piece of remote property somewhere and spend more time together. I always thought we would have that chance despite the fact I forgot he was 62 – I suppose I thought he would simply always be there, that he was just this angel who was always there for me.
In recent years he would address me in notes as “Brother John” to emphasize the fact that, as we had discussed, I really felt that he was a brother to me. I think Tom felt the same – he had known me since I was little and had watched me grow. I’ve made a terrible mess of things sometimes in my life and I had Tom to talk to about it and he was always there for me, never failing to make me feel that it was okay, that he didn’t love me any less because of my failings in life.
I had so much to learn from Tom I only wish I had listened a little more closely. We just never really had the chance to be in the same place at the same time for very long. I really wasn’t able to go live with him in Europe when I was a little boy, and in 1986, I decided that continuing to live in Jerseyville was probably not for me. We roll the dice in life – we make these decisions that at the time seem inconsequential but later appear to be fundamental. If I had the one real chance to spend considerable time with Tom, it was during the 1986-1988 period, but I chose to return to graduate school in Fresno. And then Tom got remarried in 1988 and I soon met my future wife in 1990. And life grinds on.
I can honestly say that I am a different person than I might have been had I never met Tom. There are so many things about my personality that were shaped by him that I forget where they came from. I’m naturally a pacifist, I could never own a gun, I’m liberal and forgiving, I’m spiritual but evolving, I’m intellectual and fun-loving, I have a sense of humor and love to think and read. All of these qualities I’m sure were influenced by Tom. It was Tom who went to live in Kirby Lonsdale and Salzburg – why else would I find myself living in London and Zurich? It was Tom who gave me an English coin as a child and impressed upon me how magical it was with the Queen’s portrait – Tom could have convinced me to live in an ash ram as long as he was there with me.
My grief is so profound that I hardly know what to say other than how much I loved Tom. He was just the dearest friend to me. I don’t suppose I inspired him half as much as he inspired me – he was the teacher and I was the student, but I think he knew how much I loved him. I did love him. He really was my brother and I his.
With profound sorrow for the loss of my dearest friend, I can only offer that I am profoundly grateful to have known him for as long as I did – I was indeed very lucky to have known him and I can’t imagine what my life would be like had I never known him.
Goodbye Tom. I love you.