The world's just not going to be the same without Tom Thoma in it
Tom Thoma (second from the right) poses for a picture with just a few of the Globe Gazette folks he made an impact on after he was inducted into the NIACC Hall of Fame in 2016. Pictured are (from left) Scott Kauzlarich, Kirk Hardcastle, Bob Fenske, Jake Peterson, Webb Cole, Jim and Jane Reynolds, Thoma and Jared Patterson.
My luck had struck again on that warm Wednesday morning so many years ago.
It was Wednesday, Aug. 16, 1989, to be exact. I was driving a buddy's pickup truck from Mankato, Minnesota, to Mason City for my first honest-to-goodness full-time job interview, and as I filled up with gas at a station in the little southern Minnesota town of Alden, I heard the noise coming from the back rear tire.
Crap, I said to myself. OK, maybe it wasn't that exact word, but the nervous nellie who was me about lost it.
Two things saved me. First, I had given myself plenty of extra time to make it to the 1 p.m. interview, which was and still remains a rarity for me. Second, I was at a full-service gas station.
I ran into the garage, found the owner and said I needed help fixing a flat.
"Not a problem, I'll do it right after I get back from lunch," he said.
"Um, I'm supposed to be in Mason City at 1 for a job interview."
The owner — I've forgotten his name over the years — looked at me with a kind smile.
"Well, lunch can wait; we need to get you a job, right?"
Tire fixed — for free, by the way — I made it to the Globe Gazette office at 12:50 p.m. and asked to see Tom Thoma, the sports editor of the daily newspaper.
The receptionist sent me back to the newsroom with directions on how to find Thoma.
"He's a big burly guy and at this time of the day, trust me, he'll be the only one in the sports department that's in the back corner of the room," she said. "You can't miss him."
Thoma's first words to me were something to the effect of "I like a guy who gets here early, shows some responsibility."
Six years later, on the last night I was in charge of pages at the Globe before heading to a new job in Ottumwa, we were fast approaching deadline and Thoma looked over at me and laughed.
"Fenske, remember when you came for the interview and you were early? I think that was the only time in your Globe Gazette career you didn't push deadline."
And he gave me that Thoma laugh that I had grown to know and love.
For six years, he was my boss, my first full-time boss, and I learned a lifetime of lessons from him. After my year of "exile" in Ottumwa, I returned to the Globe for four years and worked with Tom. He was still the sports editor; I was the assistant city editor, i.e, the "night editor," and it was a little scary that we made up two-thirds of the "night bosses" at the ol' "Double G."
It wasn't that we didn't have journalistic integrity because we did. Much of mine was learned from Thoma, who was a stickler for accuracy and fairness, but we were also the proverbial two peas from a pod. At times, a lot of times, we were children trapped into the bodies of adults.
The hijinks at the Globe were legendary, and as I look back now, there are times I wonder how in the hell we put out a quality product seven days a week back in the 1990s. The jokes flew, the grief-giving was dang near non-stop and the laughs never seemed to cease.
Yet, like I said, we put out a paper seven days a week, and it was filled with local content that, pardon my bias, was damn good. Thoma was just one of the talented characters that inhabited that newsroom so long ago. There were our sports guys — Ron, Mike, Larry, Dick, Bill, Kirk and a group of eclectic part-timers. There were the news, desk and photography staffs with people like Jane, Webb, Frank, Doug, Karen, Judy, Bob, Kris, Skipper, Judy, Jeff and so many more. There were the editors like Jim, Gary and John that oversaw all of it. I'm missing countless names, but, trust me, it was a hell of a crew.
As much as I loved them all, Thoma was my favorite; after all, he was the guy who gave me my start, my full-time one at least, in newspapers. He was the first one who believed in me; he was the one who put me on the road that I'm still traveling today.
He, more than anyone, taught me that as important as the final score was, the people playing and the coaches coaching the games should be the No. 1 priority in every story.
"A lot of people reading the story already know the score," he would say long before the internet was a thing, "so tell them something they don't know. Find the nuggets; they're the story."
No one in my career has had more impact on my style of writing than Tom Thoma did. Over the six years I worked for him, I adopted a lot of Thoma's "folksy style" into my own writing, and if you like my stories and columns, thank Tom Thoma. If you don't, blame him.
He taught me that it was OK to love your hometown — even if it was adopted. He taught me that as much as we don't want to make mistakes that they will happen and to own them and move on. He taught me to tell the story but to be kind. Kids are going to fumble, they are going to miss game-winning shots and they're going to strike out, and our job was to tell those stories without dwelling on them.
I left the Globe Gazette for good in 1999 when my family moved to Mankato, but when I took a job at the Forest City Summit in 2004, we stayed in touch because both the Globe and the Summit were owned by the same company. A lot of my work ended up in the Globe, and when I was having trouble, I often would call Tom and get the advice I needed.
Even after I came to New Hampton in 2009 and we no longer worked for the same corporation, I knew when I wasn't quite sure where to go with a story or how to tackle one, I could call Tom and he'd put me on the right track.
In September 2016, Tom was inducted into the North Iowa Area Community College Hall of Fame, and I had the privilege of introducing him, and as I looked out at the crowd that day, there was a well-rounded group of Globe Gazette alumni in the audience. They ranged from fellow editors to sports guys to part-timers, and even though I had known long before that moment how many lives Tom had touched, seeing all those faces was a wonderful reminder that I was introducing a real Hall of Fame guy.
Over the years, we'd talk — mostly by phone but sometimes through social media — and even though our conversations became less frequent, I, like so many others, knew that in a pinch I could call him and he'd help me right whatever ship was floundering.
So last week, when the calls and emails came in about Tom's death at the age of 74, I wept.
And I laughed.
Every call was the same.
"Did you hear about Tom?"
The tears would flow.
And then we'd tell "Thoma stories" and while the tears didn't completely go away, we'd laugh.
As much as I'm going to miss Tom and the fact that he was a phone call, a text or an email away from helping me, during those conversations, I realized that even in death, Tom Thoma was still righting the ship.