Mentoring has become somewhat of a lost art in our culture. At one time, it was an expectation that older men would pass on their knowledge and wisdom to those younger and on their way up. Some cultures still maintain elements of this. I think it’s a positive thing.
While sports no longer consume me the way they once did, I’m always going to find time for the Boston Celtics, at least the current version of the team. Part of this stems from the way that I perceive the team’s pecking order and hierarchy; the older players, grizzled veterans like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, are passing on the Celtics’ way to the younger, future stars of the team, players like Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, and earlier before he got hurt, Jared Sullinger.
I’ve been very fortunate the past few years to have had the opportunity to work for and work with some men that were mentor-worthy. These were men who I admired and who were also men of character. For whatever reason, they saw something in me, and in their own personal way, sought to cultivate and encourage that special something that all of us have, but often, never finds the light of day; mainly because it gets beaten back down by lesser lights, so-called leaders, colleagues, and the run of the mill crowd that’s legion.
I first met Dave Tomm back in 2007. I was working for the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board. My boss, Bryant Hoffman, another person that I am grateful that I had the opportunity to work under, mentioned Tomm and an initiative targeted at older workers. Both he and Tomm served on what was then the Older Workers Committee on the Maine Jobs Council.
Bryant asked if I’d meet with Dave when he was in Lewiston next, and I agreed to do so. Given that my role was to reach out to the business community, he thought that I might be able to promote Dave’s work among business leaders.
I liked Dave the first time I met him. He was larger than life. His personality and stature filled the conference room we were meeting in at the local One-Stop. I liked what I was hearing as he detailed the work he was doing. He was a social entrepreneur and had what I thought was an innovative and necessary business.
Dave had been a successful business owner, who later launched DLT Design, an advertising and sales consultancy firm in his native Connecticut. He retired, moved to Maine in 2000, and typical of men like him, found retirement boring and began looking for something new to do to direct what was still an abundant energy and passion for helping people. In 2002, Seasoned Workforce, LLC was born.
Taking his abundant skills, talents, and passion to make a difference, he became a leader in his adopted state, advocating for and raising awareness about issues surrounding workers over the age of 50. This led him to conduct a series of forums across the state. I had the privilege of seeing his work up close, and working to recruit local employers to participate.
These forums were magical, in my opinion. The first one I attended, I marveled at the way that Dave connected with the 30-40 older participants, a demographic that I forever began to call “seasoned,” following Dave’s lead.
Each time a group would come to one of the One-Stop Centers, or local libraries, or other venues that Dave secured for his three-hour sessions, a group would gather, not quite sure what to expect. They were a mix of former professionals, manual laborers, manufacturing workers, school teachers; all feeling that perhaps life had passed them by because after working all their lives, they were now between jobs and in transition. They might be fearful about continuing in the workforce, or finding a new job, possibly one with reduced hours. Many of them were finding computers and technology challenging. Some believed that they’d never be of any value again. Dave recognized these fears, brought them out, and dashed them with his humor, stories, and belief in them, telling about his own challenges. He inspired them, told them how valuable they were and when they left, most of the attendees had hope again. He was real and they respected that.
As I got to know Dave, we began what I think of as our “telephone summits, “ semi-regular phone calls to one another. Often, Dave called me, always between 8:00 and 9:00, sometimes before 8:00, once he knew I got in early on mornings I went to the gym. If I called Dave, I knew that I had to catch him before 9:00, because he would be out and about for the day after that.
If you’ve ever done nonprofit work, or something similar, where you were trying to push a new initiative forward, overcoming resistance, challenging the status quo, and trying to get people that have been risk-averse their entire lives to launch out and trod a new path, then you’ll appreciate that it’s lonely work. Often, you are doing this on your own, or with a small band of believers. You quickly learn what people are in your corner. You also quickly note your adversaries. Dave and I were fellow travelers and I came to cherish these calls.
What I really appreciated the most was that I could be myself with Dave. I didn’t have to censor how I felt, or carefully craft what I said. Sometimes, when the work’s tough, you need someone to bitch to and even bitch at.
I learned what Dave liked, who he didn’t like, and the people and organizations that were making his life miserable. Some of these were amply funded with your tax dollars.
It’s been my experience, and it was Dave’s that trying to get businesses and policymakers to understand the workforce development case for cultivating seasoned workers (and any other targeted group) into the state’s workforce equation was a tough slog. Like so many things and issues affecting our state and nation, it’s much easier to talk about it, or better, form a committee or commission a report, then pontificate. Not many people want to roll up their sleeves and address it. I knew this all too well with a program I cared about called WorkReady. Long story short, Dave became my friend.
Whenever I made it down the coast near his home in Rockland, I’d give him a heads up. Sometimes this would be during the Maine HR Convention in May, and we’d have dinner. Or, if Dave was heading west and would be in my neck of the woods, we’d have lunch in Lewiston.
Like my late father-in-law, and a small group of men, always older and experienced, Dave saw things in me that I often didn’t think I had at the time. He’d compliment what I was doing well, and encourage me. He also wasn’t afraid to tell me, “Baumer, you need to work on ___________,” with the fill-in the blank offers of advice or critique becoming areas that I paid particular attention too. I really respected that and I told him what he meant to me. I told him I was happy to chair the Dave Tomm Fanclub whenever he decided to form it. I knew we’d have a large membership.
A few weeks ago, I pointed JBE1 north for Presque Isle. I was headed to the far northern reaches of our state, now championing a new cause as director for the Maine Business Leadership Network. I had been emailing Dave and had stayed in touch with him about my new work. He always responded, one of the few from my previous, LWIB life, who bothered to answer my emails. His responses were never perfunctory, either. They were complimentary, perhaps with some advice, a word of encouragement, and even a few suggestions.
I began to recognize that there were obvious synergies between hiring people with disabilities and his efforts to address issues of aging and work. I wanted him to consider being part of a series of regional employer summits I was planning in 2013, two in the early planning stages in Aroostook County and another slated for Bangor.
Three weeks ago, my cell phone rang 25 miles into my nearly 300 mile journey, one that would have me driving right into the teeth of the most recent blizzard. The storm had tracked north, and I’d eventually catch up to it about Medway. I recognized the caller ID and knowing it was Dave, gladly picked up on my hands-free device.
Dave indicated that he had received my recent email and he apologized that he wouldn’t be able to participate. His news hit me like a ton of bricks. He was calling a few close friends and colleagues to tell them he had end-stage pancreatic cancer. I had to pull off in Richmond to talk and I admit, shed a few tears.
Dave was his usual self; battered, but not beaten. He was self-deprecating, but not in a morbid sense. He knew the hand he had been dealt and was figuring out how to play this final one. He told me he only had what he thought was a few months, although when I mentioned I’d like to see him one more time, he told me, “don’t wait too long.” I thought that meant I had a few weeks. We’re all too damn busy and too often, we treat those people, even the special ones like Dave, as appointments on our calendars.
I was trying to figure out where on my full calendar I could fit Dave in. Of course, rather than wait for me, Dave took the lead and two weeks later, sent out an email appeal to a handful of people he respected and who he thought might have the passion and knew of his work to brainstorm and discuss the possibility of continuing what he’d begun after he was gone. I read the email and thought, “to have the presence of mind when you are dying to care about something other than yourself is the mark of the man.”
Dave offered up two days the following week and Thursday was selected. I penciled it in and marked it on my dry-erase board that keeps all my free agent plates from crashing to the floor. I was looking forward to seeing him.
He sent out a second email to me asking that I call him. I could tell it meant pronto. The following morning, driving north to Bangor, we spoke for 45 minutes about the meeting, how he was feeling, and we shared how we felt about one another. I didn’t know this would be my last conversation with Dave. I thought I had a bit more time.
Yesterday morning, I got the following email note from a friend in Rockland notifying me that Dave Tomm had passed away the Friday before.
I am sure you have heard, but we lost Dave Tomm last week to pancreatic cancer.
He always spoke very highly of you, and I know you also had a great deal of respect for him in return. I’m copying a link to his obituary, below.
Sorry to be the bearer of sad news.
I’ve included the link to his obituary.
I was on a phone call and doing what I too often do, which is multi-task; reading email on my smartphone and trying to follow the person on the phone is now called productivity, but I realize it’s all a crock of shit.
Politely and professionally, I ended the call as quickly as I could. I then sat in my office, closed my door and realized that Dave Tomm was gone. I wanted to cry and call it a day. I couldn’t because I had to head out the door and meet another friend and special person in my life that I’d been stringing along for weeks about having lunch, because once again, I kept telling myself, “I was too damn busy.”
Yesterday was a mixture of sadness, tears, laughter, and joy.
I had lunch with my friend, another member of my “tribe” at this great little coffee/tea/lunch place called the Green Bean Cafe, in South China. Like Dave, this person is someone who I am privileged to know and someone who has been very helpful in my own journey on the road towards success. She’s an outlier in more ways than one; she’s female and as different from Dave Tomm as anyone could be. But like Dave, she tells me what I need to hear, offering encouragement, wisdom, and quietly chiding me when she thinks I need it. She’s a mentor in her own right, like Dave Tomm was.
I then had to leave and head back to Augusta and Panera Bread to meet with another wonderful woman from Aroostook County, someone I’ve been trying to connect with for a couple of months. She just happened to be in Augusta for a meeting and I know this contact will be one that bring dividends, I’m positive of it.
I’m still sad today and it will be hard to get beyond this loss. Dave Tomm was a special friend. I was fortunate that he got planted in my path and I hope I got what I was supposed to from him. I also hope that somehow he knows how sorry I am that I didn’t get to see him one more time and say “goodbye” in person.