Bob Gillis’ Tribute to Tom Sawran

2002-haunted-house-116by Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter, 10/2013

Tom Sawran passed away last week, and if you’ve lived in Foxboro for any length of time you probably knew him. He was a paradox to be sure, but I liked Tom, and I respected him, and as a Jaycee mentor he taught me a lot.

While other tributes for Tom will likely come in from those who knew him best — his children, his family, his very closest confidants, I thought I would talk about the man from a Jaycee and Foxboro family perspective, and why his passing is a loss for us all in the chapter and the community at large.

See, Tom had two families: First, his own family and children of course, and second, his Jaycee and Foxboro family. And I was part of the latter family.

And yeah, Tom could be that crazy uncle who knew just the off-color joke to tell at the wrong time, and he could be stubborn as hell, and more than once I discretely made an exit because of his, shall we say… “Boisterous” storytelling.

Tom wasn’t a saint — he could expertly ruffle feathers when he so choose — and man oh man, the guy spoke his mind. You knew EXACTY where you stood with him.

And like all of us, he had his own things to deal with, and sometimes the best approach was to let him be.

But I honestly believe his heart was ALWAYS in the right place.

And that’s the Tom Sawran I’d like to talk about today.

Autumn, 1992…

It’s October 1992 and Sue and I are still new to town. She tells me that some community group is having a Haunted House on Payson Road. We go, we love it, and we go back again a few nights later.

What we didn’t know at the time was that the group was called the Foxboro Jaycees, and the Haunted House, their number one fundraiser, was being run that year by a man named Tom Sawran.

We later learned that it was the first time the Jaycees were running the Haunt on their own — while they still had help from other chapters, it was no longer a Mansfield-Foxboro collaboration; this was all Foxboro Jaycees and many in the chapter were nervous — could it be done?

And Tom said, “Run it like a business.” Through that season — “Run it like a business.” And his idea was a great success. While chairing and coordinating a huge team effort of over 100 workers (and make no mistake, a Jaycee Haunt is a TEAM effort) he made time to dress up like a Gloucester Fisherman he called “Salty,” who would appear in numerous Haunt skits over the years.

Now, at this point, I hadn’t even met the man — but soon would.

The Jaycees

Fast forward to the spring of 1993. Sue tells me that the Jaycees called and asked if we would help them with their Founders Day float.

Absolutely true, the conversation went like this:

Me: “Oh — who are the Jaycees again?”

Sue: “They’re that community service group who did that really cool Haunted House.”

Me: “Oh, I loved that.” A pause. “What’s Founders Day?”

So that night, we met in the yard of Jaycee Bob Webster, another good friend of mine these many years since, and helped paint part of the float — a replica of the Haunted House.

We liked the people, they seemed to like us, and one month later we’re being sworn into the Foxboro Jaycees by the president, Tom Sawran — and he and I joked for years that was his biggest mistake as president, which we both found hilarious. He was always goofing on me, always teasing, saying he never read my Op/Eds when I know he did — but there was a respect and affection there I cherished. And in those early years, a lot of good talks.

I once asked him about those early days as president in an interview for the Jaycee newsletter. He told me about his most memorable experience:

Tom: “Without question, the most memorable and proudest experience of my year as Jaycee President was the membership growth we accomplished. As I was being sworn in as President, I was also being aged out as a Rooster on the same night. I still hold the record for actually being the oldest Foxboro Jaycee President in the history of our chapter, serving several months of my term as a 41 year old. There was a fairly large group of us who all aged out the same night and [we needed] membership growth. … I had the great good fortune of having Patti O’Hara Howard and Beth Finch Maddestra as my Membership V.P. and Director, respectively. To any request or idea that they would forward as to ideas regarding membership growth, my answer was always a resounding YES! Give it a try!”

July 1993: Tom swears in Bob and Sue and other new members
July 1993: Tom swears in Bob and Sue and other new members

As Sue and I learned about this new (to us) community service organization, there was a lot to process. As the two new kids, we tried to understand the Jaycee procedures, and Tom was one of the first folks we consulted — I remember that first time in his kitchen as we discussed a Jaycee project — he was completing tiling in his kitchen but was happy to talk to us for hours but he told us he HAD to get the tile up before it dried.

And not only did he clarify a lot of Jaycee procedure; I was impressed with his construction talent and later learned he did work for many people around town, redoing kitchens and other construction projects. I learned that his construction could take some time — he often worked at his own pace — but the end result was always worth it.

And he made friends. Jaycee Derek House explains, “He was my friend and fellow Jaycee Senator. He passed away way too young. Most of the Blue Hills Jaycees will remember Tom as “Salty.” Tom was a great guy who I worked with, and worked in Jaycees with, and ran projects with. He was always willing to help with whatever was needed. I will always remember his brutal honesty and especially his laugh… yes sir, it was never disingenuous.”

And he had a great rapport with the young people who helped us at Jaycee projects; my friend Niki Melish Nielsen said of him, “Tom Sawran was one of the many great people I met in the Foxboro Jaycees. He was funny, sweet and always had a hug for me. When I first started at the Haunted House at age 14, he was one of the people who helped bring me out of my shell. I have so many fond memories of him and I can’t believe he’s gone.”

Now, there was far more to Tom than Jaycee Haunts, but two more stories MUST be shared.

Picture this. It’s October 1998 and the Foxboro Jaycees are holding what would be their final Haunted House at the Payson Road auditorium location — an abandoned, condemned building. We’ve been there about seven years; it’s our largest fundraiser attracting over 10,000 people in the season and makes everything else the Jaycees do possible.

And then, the Jaycees are told — DAYS before opening — that due to the septic system not working, we could not open — our biggest fundraiser was effectively canceled — and without that income, our community development projects for the year would take a huge hit. There was talk of porta-potties, but there would be over 10,000 people and what about running water for a hundred Jaycees trying to get into makeup and cleanup?

And then Tom, with a few friends and some construction equipment, and getting the proper permits in record time, he installed a septic system (into a condemned building!) and our Haunt went on to great success.

A year later, in 1999, The Payson Road site had been formally condemned and could no longer be used. The Jaycees needed a new location for their annual fund-raiser — and fast.

Jaycee and former selectman Lynda Walsh, one of Tom’s very closest friends told me, “So back in 1999 we can’t use Payson Road anymore and I have an idea but I want Tom’s buy in.” She says, “Tom, I have a vision for the Haunted House and I need your help. I just want you to listen first. I think we can make this work.”

“Where?” Tom asked.

“Camp Lincoln Hill,” Lynda said. She explained the logistics and changes necessary to make it work. She goes on, “If he had told me the idea would never work, I wouldn’t have gone further, but he just smiled and said, “Sweetie, if that’s what you want to do, we’ll make it happen.”

And Lynda and the Jaycee team went to work, Tom worked construction with other Jaycees and personally built the handicapped ramps for the cabins. The Jaycees worked all summer, descending en masse on the Camp and until 2004, the Jaycees ran five successful Haunts at the camp.

Jaycees David Brown and Tom Sawran as "Salty," 1992
Jaycees David Brown and Tom Sawran as “Salty,” 1992

And Lynda adds, “There are so many stories of his inspiration and his encouragement… I could go on and on.”

Many felt that way, that Tom was a great listener. (We often joked he also never stopped talking, which sent many folks running from the room!)

But I remember vividly that his kitchen counter “bar” was always open and I myself spent more than a few evenings years ago over Rum & Coke’s, talking to Lynda and Tom as they lent a sympathetic ear to my troubles and helped me drown my sorrows or just offer advice for whatever was troubling me.

Lynda, and a lot of Jaycees and friends of Tom, has said to me that quite a lot was discussed at that “Sawran Bar Counter” over the years — it was a chance to unload, commiserate with a friend, have some laughs, and know that your secrets would stay at that counter.

Former Jaycee President and Haunted House chairman Beth Finch-Maddestra talked a lot with Tom back in those days at that same counter. “Tom talked me into my [Jaycee] presidency as well as my Haunted House chairmanship. Two of the best learning experiences of my life. I was so proud to follow in his footsteps when I became Key Man. He was a mentor. I remember the long nights over a bottle or two of wine while solving all the problems of the world. I am proud to have known him as my friend.”

Tom was a fixture at all of our Haunted Houses; his usual skit, which we teased him endlessly about, was his “Mirror Ghost” skit — using a large piece of glass would give the appearance of a ghostly figure who would suddenly appear before scaring another crowd of patrons. We all teased him about doing something “new” but he said his mirror effect scared people and that if it worked, don’t fix it.

And for years he was involved in many Jaycee events large and small, from pancake breakfasts and concerts on the common and countless other projects, many of which he chaired over the years. And he served on the Jaycee board in a variety of capacities. He was also an impressive cook and would sometimes bring a full meal to our general meetings.

2004-jaycees-in-news-24

Knowing Tom

Tom was stubborn as a mule, and incredibly opinionated and outspoken. As I said, you knew where you stood with him. He worked hard, and he played hard, and he made his opinions known. Spoke his mind. Oh, boy, he spoke his mind. And that could rub people the wrong way. Even me.

At many Jaycees meetings he might express displeasure at a new idea: “That’s not the way we’ve always done it!” was his line. And it became a running joke as we new kids insisted we had a few ideas of our own. But I don’t think Tom was being an “old guy” unwilling to change, I think he was overprotective of our group. Yes, his opinion could be a little pushy, but in the end he meant well.

And he kept mentoring the new folks. As new Jaycees joined the chapter, Tom was always one of the members to talk to. After all, we teased him, he obviously invented ALL those projects, and he invented the Jaycees itself, and helped found the town of Foxboro back in the day! He liked that teasing, I know it.

Tom on the Founders Day Committee
Tom on the Founders Day Committee

And he had a playful side too. Jaycee Laureen House said of Tom, “I have known Tom for well over 20 years now. First met him as Salty at the Haunted House. It struck me first meeting him how so full of life this man was. Smiling, laughing, friendly and a special twinkle in his eye for the ladies. The last time I saw Tom, he was dressed in a Jaycee Senator shirt, Hawaiian style. Still smiling, laughing full of life and still the special twinkle in his eyes for the ladies. He never changes. I will remember all the laughs we shared and all the times that his smile made me smile. He always had a personal positive comment for me. Rest in peace Tom, may you be smiling and laughing now with the Angels.”

Tom’s Jaycee achievements are impressive. He was awarded the Jaycee Key Man award, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a Jaycee, only given once a year and only by previous Key Men, for outstanding contributions to the chapter during that year. He was also honored with a Life Membership, an honor very few have been awarded.

And as he got older, it was time by tradition for the “younger folks” to take over the Jaycee work, he moved up to State Jaycee Senator, serving as a vice president since 2003, and as the president from 2007-2008, but still stayed involved locally.

Not just a Jaycee

And it’s very important to know that Tom’s love for Foxboro was not relegated to his beloved Jaycees.

Jaycee Founders Day Float, 2002
Jaycee Founders Day Float, 2002

He joined the Foxboro Founders Day committee and served that important group for several years. And speaking of our town’s birthday, several Founders Day floats were built by enthusiastic Jaycees in his yard, and his 2002 float, a large Eagle on a horse drawn carriage, with models of Foxboro buildings (such as Memorial Hall) on its sides — well, that particular float won the award for “Best Representation of Theme.” And he proudly displayed the large eagle in his front yard for several months afterward.

Every Doolittle Home Auction, as we Jaycees flooded the FCA studio with helpers, luggers and workers, Tom ensured the boards displaying the various auction items were painted and sturdy.

There are many people around town who enjoy better quality of life in their homes because of his expert craftsmanship. He took enormous pride in his construction.

2004-jaycees-in-news-25

He was on the Board of the CYO and coached the youth basketball, and was popular with the players. Of that role, Deb Stewart said, “I met Tom during my son’s CYO basketball years. But I soon learned that Tom would always be there for someone in need. He was a human being, one who had flaws like all of us but in the end he wore his kind heart on his sleeve. Tom Sawran was indeed a good man who touched many lives, something we all should remember.”

Speaking of hearts on sleeves, Tom wasn’t a man you’d see cry very often, but I recall the night at his home when I asked about the carefully preserved American flag in his living room, and he told me about his brother in the military who’d died in action — and it was obvious the loss still affected him these many years later.

Tom presents Sandy Smith with the Jaycee Key Man award, 2007
Tom presents Sandy Emery with the Jaycee Key Man award, 2007

Paul O’Sullivan says, “Tom was a bright intelligent and thoughtful man with a caring heart as great as the outdoors he loved. He missed his brother Rick every day and I am certain that they are now both together again in a better place.”

Jaycee Bill Byrnes adds, “I feel as though I’ve know Tom forever …obviously not…. but it has been many years …decades! Such a loss and too soon! First let me day that I think of Tom as a fellow Jaycee, citizen of Foxboro and the greater communities, contractor, and good friend. RIP Tom. Secondly, I clearly remember several years ago, Tom coming to me with a Jaycee personal issue that he entrusted me to help him resolve. Without getting into details, I was able with the help of other Jaycees to produce a result that was acceptable to all and a long standing value to the Jaycees as a whole. Thirdly and most importantly to me, I remember a poignant conversation with Tom when my son, Adam, was about to be deployed to Afghanistan not long after 9/11. Tom’s tearful tale of the loss of his brother as a pilot in a helicopter crash during the Vietnam War was quite moving to me. His tragic loss ironically gave me some strength to deal with my own fears and dismay. I gave Tom an instinctive hug for his encouragement and courage. His words and encouragement so long ago resounded in my brain this weekend; a decade later as my son arrived in Afghanistan for a second tour of duty there….this time as a helicopter pilot in a far off land. As I try to grapple with the fear and anxiety of another deployment let me say one more last time to my dear friend, Tom, thank you for the insight, encouragement, and comfort. If only I could give you one more hug of gratitude.”

Tom lived with passion — and his passion was this town. Another of his favorites was the South Foxboro Community Center (SFCC), a place many residents and groups use for various meetings and activities. If you remember the place back into the 1990s, it was really starting to show its age, and the SFCC committee wanted to renovate. After much fundraising and work, they were able to do so — and as a trustee of the SFCC, Tom had a large part in the massive construction and restoration that made the place so beautiful for all of us to enjoy. (Take a look these days — it’s a showplace!)

Ellen Deen, SFCC president says, “Tom was the head of trustees at the South Foxboro Community Center. He did so much of the work on the restoration; we never would have been able to do what we did without him. He was a craftsman, always putting in the extra touches that made things look extra special. He found the son of the original artist that did our historic backdrop [on the stage]. He rebuilt the stage and most of the rest of the building over the years. He did a lot of good things for people and we shared a lot of good times. We used to joke that with all the work he did the building was his legacy, maybe it is. We will miss him. Tom contributed so much to the community. I just pray he is at peace.”

Tom and I compare who has the best Christmas tie at the 2005 Jaycee Progressive Dinner
Tom and I compare who has the best Christmas tie at the 2005 Jaycee Progressive Dinner

He often did things behind the scenes, with no fanfare. When Cliff Curry passed away, it was Lynda and Tom, and later just Tom, who ensured that the white crosses were on Foxboro Common every Memorial Day and fit properly.

He and several other Jaycees were instrumental in rebuilding the iconic “FOXBORO” sign on the common.

You called him, he was there to help.

Former Jaycees Norm Pelland said, “It goes without saying, everyone associated with the Jaycees is feeling the loss of a great man. During our ten year association with the group, I had come to know and respect Tom for his remarkable drive and commitment to the town. He wasn’t fearful of sharing his views that perhaps would cause some to challenge him, but the town and all of us that knew him are better for it. May we all inherit his passion and drive for the betterment of our communities… Job well done Tom. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your friendship.”

Bob Webster says, “Tom is one of my oldest Foxboro friends. We had so many hilarious times together over the years. He had his demons but, would do anything for a friend or neighbor or the community he loved so much. He will be missed.”

Sandy Daniels adds, “Tom joined the Jaycees shortly after I did. Some of my fondest Jaycee memories are from those early days. I especially remember a few years of creativity building the Founders Day float in Tom’s driveway and huge back yard parties with the Jaycee band. He was an artist and no one could ever question his love for Foxboro or his pride at being a Jaycee.”

And last year, when my wife Susan refurbished the Jesus statue at La Salette Shrine in the Tomb of Resurrection, she found the glass frame cracked and the wooden frame in tatters. She called Tom. How to fix the broken glass? Can the frame be rebuilt? How do you attach it to marble?

Tom had all the answers, bought the wood himself, built the frame, mounted the glass that had been donated by another person, and painted it to match the altar in that room, and helped Sue install it. Sue tells me they spend many hours talking, and she really enjoyed those talks.

The restored statue and glass frame was (and is) very appreciated by the La Salette community.

Sue says, “To Bob and me, Tom will always be the “Foxboro Jaycees.” We have known him since we have known Foxboro and called it home and the Jaycee family. He swore us into the chapter. He helped and mentored us. Through the years, like everyone in the chapter who knew him would say that there were the “ups and downs” in our growing relationship. Over the last several years, as we all grew together in friendship and in respect for each other, it was just the ups. There are no words to express his contributions and love and dedication to what is still the best part of Foxboro, the Jaycees. Tom, my friend, may you find the peace now that so eluded you in life. My prayers and love and blessings go with you and to your family and everyone who loved you. You will NEVER be forgotten. Thank you for everything Tom.”

Well said, my love.

Jaycee Kris Long adds, “Dear Tom, if I could give you one thing in life, I would give you the ability to see yourself though my eyes. Only then would your realize how special you are to the rest of us.”

For me, I remember a year ago, Tom called me; he had an extra “Foxboro Jaycees Welcome You” sign and wanted to know if we could use it, and I said definitely, the one at Bradlees plaza is sunlight-faded.

December 2005
December 2005

And that Saturday morning as he showed me the Koi pond he was designing, we talked about the Jaycees and our struggle to get more members, and how important the Jaycees were to him, he filled up a little.

And it hit me.

“You love the Jaycees so much,” I said.

“I really do,” he said.

When we’d talked about membership in an interview years before, he emphasized the importance of teamwork when he told me, “I think we put in about 35 new members in total for my year. It happened because membership growth, while being led by several very aggressive and creative members, as was repeatedly being reminded to all, was EVERYBODY’S JOB. Service to Humanity may be the best work of Life, but it can’t be done without constantly renewing the most valuable resource of the organization—MEMBERS.”

“Service to humanity is the best work of life.” It’s in the Jaycee creed, and Tom did his best to live it.

Saying goodbye

Lynda Walsh adds, “After the shock, the great memories began to stream in, long phone conversations recalling some of our better times in the past along with fixed memories of Jaycee projects, trips to the beach with Nicole and Patrick, Jimmy Buffet concerts, Christmas hay rides, meals on the porch, parades, trip to Tennessee, playing cards with mom till all hours of the night, camping, just sitting at his counter laughing and sometimes crying, I will have all these memories of my dear friend and mentor. Usually when someone dies so unexpectedly, it’s really hard to cope because you never got to tell them how much they meant to you, and that’s all you want to do. But, I was blessed to have had a good conversation with him Saturday morning, and it ended with both of saying I love you to each other. He took a piece of my heart with him on his final journey, but it too shall be reunited when we meet again.”

Tom Sawran, 2012
Tom Sawran, 2012

Speaking for myself, I think of how much Tom got right in his life and what he accomplished on

his own, and as part of many organizations. And I wish he knew that we appreciated it. I wish his road had been a little easier for him.

Tom, your journey was sometimes a bumpy one, but your work and contributions made Foxboro a better place — and that’s more than most of us can hope for.

Rest in peace, old friend. You are well remembered.

 

President Tom at the SFCC, 1993
President Tom at the SFCC, 1993

 

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