Anyone who knew Tom “Big Tom” Fitzgerald personally could tell you he was as big in real life as he was on air.
Big voice. Big personality. Big heart.
It was his heart that failed him in the end — he died early Wednesday morning, having been in hospital for about a week, struggling with endocarditis, an inflammation of the inner layer of his heart. He would have turned 39 this Friday.
A native of Bell Island, Fitzgerald had been co-hosting the morning show on K-ROCK for years, as well as “Saturday in the Shed.”
An Alice Cooper fan who even had Cooper’s autograph tattooed on the inside of his arm, Fitzgerald was at home on the classic rock music station, and called his career a “dream job.”
He had no formal training in broadcasting, and had worked at Steele Communications in advertising sales before he applied for an on-air position about 10 years ago.
Once there, he blossomed.
Fans came to know Fitzgerald for his overflowing personality, his deep, gravelly voice and his hearty, unforgettable laugh. He seemed eternally optimistic, on air and off, and made friends wherever he went. He spoke often on the radio of his eight-year-old daughter, Sophie, and friends know he was a very proud papa.
His personal motto, written in his Twitter bio, was, “Life … live it and love it as hard as you can.”
“When people pass, everybody says good things, but Tom was a guy who really cared about a lot of people and had a great work ethic,” said Steele Communications boss John Steele, choking up. “He was, first and foremost, a good friend. He was a fun-loving guy, but he was a guy that was always there for you when it counted. You could really rely on him.”
Fitzgerald’s willingness didn’t end with his friends — he was up for anything, from getting the K-ROCK logo tattooed on his butt to going on a blind date for the morning show, and raising money for charity. He spent a week in the station’s mobile shed to raise funds for Daffodil Place in 2009, and another last year with morning show co-hosts Candice Udle and Mike Campbell to earn money for Ronald McDonald House.
Campbell and Udle were on the air Wednesday morning when the station was informed of Fitzgerald’s death. The hosts went to a commercial break, as usual, and never returned to the air.
Udle was too distraught to speak, sending a comment to The Telegram via text message instead.
“I’m still in shock, and words can’t describe how I feel right now,” she said. “Tom has been like a big brother to me. Not only did I lose a co-worker, but I lost a friend. Just knowing Tommy has made me a better person. We shared some wonderful moments together. We shared a studio, office and even a shed for a week. These memories I will have forever.”
Paul Kinsman, host of OZFM’s Dawn Patrol morning show, knew Fitzgerald personally, not professionally. Their employers may be competitors, but the two deejays weren’t.
“We would see each other nearly every day at school, picking up our daughters, and would joke that the early morning hours we both worked would kill us,” Kinsman said. “There are people who have earned broadcasting degrees and still don’t possess what came so easy to Tom, that rare, natural ability to connect with listeners instantly. It was his gift and our loss.”
Online tributes to Fitzgerald came pouring in by the hundreds as word of his death spread, and “Big Tom” and “RIP Big Tom” were trending topics on Twitter in Canada for a few hours Wednesday morning.
Many Telegram readers commented online that they felt they knew Fitzgerald on a personal level, growing attached to him through their car radios.
By Wednesday afternoon, fans were laying bouquets of flowers underneath Fitzgerald’s picture on the shed, which is parked in the Steele Communications parking lot.
“His popularity was due to the fact that he could connect to the audience because he was so real and he had that laugh and all that,” Steele said.
Details on a funeral service for Fitzgerald have not yet been announced.