The news reverberated this morning like an earthquake, followed by a tsunami of memories, tributes and tears.
Tom Fitzgerald, better known as Big Tom, the outgoing and jovial deejay with 97-5 K-Rock, died early this morning of heart failure. He was just 39.
Tom took sick just over a week ago, and has been in hospital since then. However, people were hoping for and expecting a recovery. No one was quite prepared for this.
So young, so talented. Loved by all who knew him, and thousands of listeners who felt as though they did.
“Everybody says good things about somebody when they pass, but the fact of the matter is that Tom Fitzgerald was a great guy,” said John Steele, president of Steele Communications (owner of K-Rock), in a phone interview from Calgary.
“He was very committed, worked very hard, and I think the secret for Tom’s success was, what you heard on the radio was him, you know? He was a very genuine guy, and people connected with him. He enjoyed a good laugh – even ones at his own expense – and he didn’t take himself too seriously. He was game for anything.”
A native of Bell Island, Tom had no formal training and learned his craft by working around the edges, in advertising sales and then creative. Then the day came, close to 10 years ago, when he applied for the deejay position. It was something of a long shot, because Tom didn’t have a rich radio voice – it was gruff, coarse, and uniquely his own.
“I remember that day clearly,” Steele recalled. “He wanted a shot at going on the air, but he didn’t think he would get it. I talked to him, and man, he was so bummed out. The wind was out of his sails. He wanted to do it so bad.”
Of course, Tom DID get the job, and immediately thrived in the role of radio personality.
“He wasn’t a traditional radio guy, in that mould. He didn’t have any formal training. He was just a real guy. He was totally a natural at it, and was able to connect. You will find people with smoother deliveries, formal training, who can give you the time and weather and all that stuff, but they don’t connect. But Tom had that great ability to connect, and that’s something you can’t learn. It’s just something that you have, and he had it. He had charisma… We (at Steele Communications) may have set him loose on the world, but it was Tom who created himself. He was the real deal, and that’s why he connected – why he was so successful at it.”
The station conducts market research constantly, and Steele said Tom’s personality was “very strong” in the local market. And while he was easygoing with people, Tom took tremendous pride in the quality of his work.
“He was very competitive. He was a likeable, lovable guy, but when it came to his work, he didn’t like anyone getting in front of him, in the parade. He didn’t mind leading the parade. He had a great following in the Shed. K-Rock is oriented towards males, but he had a great following among males and females. So he liked that a lot – was very proud of it… I remember one time, I asked him, ‘Tom, if I could give you a million bucks, or the equivalent of a million dollars worth of celebrity, what would you take?’ Without hesitation, he said, ‘I’ll take the quantified million dollars worth of celebrity, and I’ll make you a million bucks.’”
Tom had a booming, boisterous laugh that was highly contagious and something of a trademark. One can imagine Tom, busting a gut at one end of Western Brook Pond, and a hiker at the other end of the fiord asking what's so funny. In fact, his laugh was so big, it's difficult to comprehend that it has been silenced.
“He probably laughed 30,000 times a day,” Steele said. “He chuckled at anything, sometimes at his own expense. But he was never hurtful with his humour. He was just a warm guy. If Tom ever hurt anyone, he would be hurt himself.”
Tom also did a lot of community work, Steele said, and was up for helping out any cause. Perhaps his best-known charitable gigs were the two weeks he spent in ‘The Shed’; by himself for Daffodil Place, and with Candice Udle and Mike Campbell for Ronald McDonald House.
“He was a guy who loved doing things, including charitable things. He was a really giving guy. He just had this real zest for life.”
Tom was popular with listeners, but was also “big in the building,” Steele said. “He had a big following among his co-workers. And he was very good friends with Candice and Mike. They hung out together, had a lot of respect for each other, and did a great job together. There was a chemistry they had that you can’t fake. They really were friends.”
I asked Candice if she was up for making a comment, and received this reply:
“I don’t really know how much talking I can do right now. Words can’t describe how I feel right now. Still in shock... Tom has been like a big brother to me. Not only did I lose a co-worker, but I lost a best friend. Just knowing Tommy has made me a better person. We shared some wonderful moments together. We shared a studio, an office and even a shed for a week. These memories I will have forever.”
Tom leaves a daughter, Sophie, who Steele says was “dearly loved – the apple of his eye” and a former wife with whom he remained close. “I had a good, long conversation with Tom, just a couple of days before all this happened, and we talked about a lot of things. He said he had a very good relationship with his ex-wife, and was very pleased about that, you know? It’s a big loss, a big loss. But it will be felt the most by his family. It’s very sad.”
When this news broke this morning, I invited friends on Facebook to message me with their recollections of Big Tom. Here are some of those. (And please, leave a comment if you’d like to share a memory or offer a tribute.)
Michelle Butler Hallett:
I worked with Tom for about seven years when I was with VOCM and NewCap. Teased him mercilessly, and he always tormented me back. I usually won any linguistic gross-out competition, but he was always up for one. His death comes like a kick in the gut.
Two quick stories, from a big fund ...
When I was still nursing my daughter and had not long come back to work from maternity leave, I explained, all serious, how let-down works, how the sound of a crying baby makes milk flow. Tom then did a very good imitation of a baby crying. I let down -- began to leak -- and had to leave the room to mop up, laughing so hard I cried.
Second story ... Tom always warmly encouraged my fiction writing. When my first book came out, he made a point of taking a copy to Jamaica, and leaving it on a bench for someone else to find. He meant is as a gift to whoever would find it.
I was lucky enough to work with him a number of times. From getting him tattooed with Alice Cooper's autograph on his arm, to painting him as the Incredible Hulk and many, many charitable events. I can’t believe we lost this incredible man and all the energy he gave to the community and anyone who knew him.
Had the opportunity to work with him last year - he emceed a client event and he was fantastic. What a terrible loss.
Sending my condolences to the entire Steele Communications family. I interacted with Tom quite a few times over the years, he was always upbeat and positive, and just plain NICE. Talented guy and a loss for the province.
Tom is one of the few people in the world I can honestly say I never saw angry. He had a lust for life, and his laugh and smile were contagious. Just passing him in the hall at VO was worthwhile. He could bring you 'up' in an instant. There is something special about people like that. Something special indeed.
Big Tom not only made me feel like a rockstar every time he interviewed me, but most importantly he made me feel loved and liked. He made me feel like a lifelong friend. A good soul he was... with a big heart.