Conversation, coffee blended in life of Thompson

December 20, 2003|By ROB KASPER

BALTIMORE, as the natives say, is a good town to die in. Memories here are long. Loyalties run deep.

I was reminded of this aspect of local life on a recent afternoon as I listened to a handful of Tom Thompson's old college buddies gather at his bedside and tell stories.

Tom, a raconteur who moved easily among this town's blue- blood and blue-collar communities, ran several gourmet coffee operations around town over the past 30 years. He died this week at the age of 58 after a two-year battle with cancer. A service will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at St. Mary of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church in Govans (please see Page 4B).

Knowing his time was short, Tom invited people whose company he had enjoyed over the years to come see him this fall. Encouraged by Tom's wife, Rosemary, and his daughter Allisun, visitors came alone and in groups to sit and talk. I saw him twice, once at a potluck party held in his honor at the The Elm, the Hampden studio of artist Bill Burrows, and later at Tom's home on Bellona Avenue.

Tom not only loved to talk, he was good at it. Technically he sold coffee, and he knew his beans, but he specialized in palaver.

Customers would walk into the Coffee Mill on Chestnut Avenue in Hampden to buy a few pounds of beans and would end up spending the better part of the morning there, listening to stories about the Orioles, local politics, the latest movie, sports cars or the latest quirky slice of urban life that Tom had discovered. He might not have mastered the numbers side of the business equation - a few years ago he ended up closing the Coffee Mill - but he had the customer relations part down pat.

On the day I visited him at home, Tom sat in bed, smiling from time to time as some of his old college running mates, now gray-haired men of substance, recounted the hijinks of their youth.

Shaking their heads with disbelief, they recalled stunts they had pulled as members of Delta Phi Delta. This was a social fraternity that occupied various locations in Charles Village during the 1960s and drew some members from the University of Baltimore, where Tom got his undergraduate degree.

Being the skinniest of the group, Tom was assigned the top spot of the frat boys impromptu human sculpture that was called something like "pyramid of the moons" and was designed to shock anyone unlucky enough to view it.

"Tom would always say, `We shouldn't be doing this,'" said Frank Adams, now a venture capitalist with Grotech Capital Group in Timonium, and the room filled with laughter.

Late this week, after Tom's death, Adams and Bert Basignani, another college buddy, reflected on their friendships with Tom.

For Adams it began at age 14, when he and Tom were freshmen at Towson Catholic High School. They were, Adams said, "as different as night and day. I was your typical jock, playing football and lacrosse in high school and college. Tom was more of an artsy type, very philosophical. I liked listening to him talk, and the way he thought things through. He was a soothing, smoothing influence," he said.

In later years, Adams said, he would bump into Tom at one of Baltimore's many charity galas, where Tom would serve espresso. They saw each other at a recent Zoomerang, a benefit for the Baltimore Zoo, where, Adams said, they talked about a band, the Van Dykes, they both liked. "Tom was very good with people, able to enjoy every minute as it came up."

Basignani, who now presides over a well-regarded Baltimore County winery, said that he met Tom in the 1960s and that he was one of the "artsy types" that Tom had recruited into the fraternity in an attempt to change the group's "wild and woolly" tone. The two became fast friends, later traveling to Europe.

Back in Baltimore, they stayed in touch, helping each other through rough spots, such as the end of Tom's first marriage, and engaging in small competitions, such as seeing who could go longer without putting the top on his sports car.

"That one lasted for weeks," Basignani said. "Sometimes you would have to duck under a bridge if it rained, or not even drive." In the end, Tom won this contest, keeping his top down for 25 straight days.

I also spoke to Everett Ellis, his co-worker, who made regular visits to Tom this fall. Ellis is a straight-talking type who is well-versed with the street life of Hampden. He said that one day six years ago, Tom invited him in for a cup of coffee and before he knew it, had talked him into being his right-hand man at the Coffee Mill.

"Tom was so kind-hearted, there wasn't anything he wouldn't do for people," Ellis said. But, he added, some people took advantage of Tom's accommodating nature.

For a time, Ellis thought Tom's kindly nature was a sign of weakness. But his opinion of Tom shifted when he saw how Tom handled his final days.

"I have never seen a man as strong as he was, knowing he was going to die," Ellis said. "He was an inspiration."

Adams and Basignani told me the same thing.

It is difficult to visit a friend who is dying, they said. It causes you to reflect on your life, and it reminds you of your own mortality. But Tom never let the visits turn maudlin.

"He accepted it for what it was," Adams said. He wasn't happy about it. But he dealt with it."

"He never treated it as a bad deal; he just took it," Basignani said. "He was such a strong guy. He felt he had a good family, that he had a wonderful life, just like that movie."

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