Last week, one of my very first boyfriends died. It was sudden and shocking, and not just because Terry Tomalin was relatively young and fit (55, and the longtime outdoors editor of the Tampa Bay Times), but because Terry was so distinctively full of life. Terry was… positivity DISTILLED. No matter when you talked to him, there was always something to be excited about, to look forward to, to achieve or conquer or experience, and a way for him to include you. His enthusiasm was infectious, and no one was immune.
I was only 23 when we started dating, just out of college and struggling to secure a full-time journalism job, while he was hitting his stride as a professional adventurer-journalist; long desperate to flee the state I believed a backwards backwoods, Terry, a New Jersey transplant, relished his growing expertise in Florida backwaters. It was love, and it was doomed.
But like so many people he made the unimaginable a reality for, Terry helped me realize a dream this Florida girl hadn’t even previously possessed: one day, frazzled and beered-up, I told him I’d like nothing more than to “walk to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and lay my naked body on the parched, red earth.” Terry lit up like a fireworks finale. “You can do that! I’ll help!” I looked at him like the obvious crackpot he was. And three months later — after he’d bought me a backpack and boots, trained me for hills by having me run up and down parking garages, showed my how to trim weight from my pack by cutting tea bag labels and map edges, bought me “Blue Highways” and made me mix tapes for the road — I was swimming naked in a frigid, crystal overflow pool adjacent to the Colorado, small fish nibbling at my swollen, blistered feet beneath miles of cloudless, heat-quavering sky. I was backpacking, alone, across the Grand Canyon and back. To Terry, the imaginable was the doable. His optimism was an actual Force of Nature.
Terry also happened to be a very young sibling to an extremely famous person, and for that reason his passing made not just national but international press. (The above picture is one I took of him with her youngest son in 1991.) But in truth, in the years since I left Florida he had found his own kind of fame: marrying a very successful woman and having two gorgeous children, becoming deeply involved in the community, teaching courses at the University of South Florida, our alma mater. Between his longtime regular readers at the Times, his students, the Boy Scout troop he led, the captains and crews of every sport and commercial fishing boat along the coast, all the local outdoor gear leaders and pretty much everyone they knew and most of their friends and relatives and neighbors, Terry was an enormously well-known and -loved guy in his community. The shock, disbelief and devastation on his Facebook page last week was heartbreaking.
His memorial service Friday, however, was absolutely beautiful, and joyful, and Terry.
It was filled with laughter and tears and leis and boards and hallelujahs, and a whole lot of music. Terry loved music. It was always around him, or coming out of him, or something he was sharing with you. This is one he loved to sing to me. Saddle up that pony on that boat and sail peacefully on, Terry.