Remembering Tom

Tom MonahanOf the thousands of people who pass through our lives, few stand out as true originals. The world lost one last week. Tom Monahan died of ALS at the age of 58. He was way too young.

Tom was a treasure. He was both a lone wolf who thumbed his nose at authority and a team player who loved his friends and colleagues and who was loved by them. He was one of a kind.

I met Tom in 1982 when I joined Computerworld as a staff writer. He was a designer, and he made an immediate impression. Tom’s weapon was the one-liner. His timing was brilliant and his wit often withering. His favorite venue for a well-timed wisecrack was a full room, usually during a pause in an executive presentation. Tom could bring down the house, not just because his timing was so good, but because people couldn’t believe he had just said what he said. The more pompous or self-important the speaker, the more devastating Tom was. I was a target many times, as was IDG Chairman Pat McGovern. He made no exceptions for authority or people who could get him fired. No one else but Tom could have gotten away with it. He was just such a great guy.

Tom was an unconventional man with conventional roots. The product of a large Irish Catholic family from Boston, he eschewed religion and demonstrated little interest in relationships during much of the time I knew him. Late in his life, though, he met and married Mary, an incredible woman who nursed him through a terrible disease. Mary softened some of Tom’s rough edges, and he clearly loved her deeply.

Tom was one of the smartest people I knew, yet he never paraded his intellect. It would come out in subtle and unexpected ways: a soliloquy on the history of printing, a verbal essay on the travails of the Pilgrims or a lesson on the finer points of nautical navigation. He once told me he read three or four books a week. I don’t doubt that.

Career success, at least as many people define it, didn’t interest him very much. He worked at IDG for more than 25 years, eventually becoming online director of the Computerworld.com website. He had the talent and the smarts to jump to a bigger magazine, join an agency or just start his own business, but visibility and financial rewards seemed to motivate him less than familiarity and the chance to enjoy his many outside interests.

Tom Monahan BookcaseWhen IDG laid him off six years ago, he was devastated, but he quickly pulled himself up and set out on a new career – as a furniture designer. You can see some of his work here. The ALS struck just as Tom was completing a two-year intensive program of study at a furniture-making school. What cruel timing for a man whose hands were his most valued tools.

Tom was an artist. He wasn’t much of an illustrator, but he had a gift for design, especially color and typography. I’ve worked with many designers over the years, but never one who took such an interest in the subject matter of his work. Tom could think like an editor, and that’s a rare trait in his profession. Editors loved working with him.

He played guitar and his band, the Texas Instruments, belted out pretty decent bluegrass rockabilly. He was a photographer and a lover of designs in nature. When he started making furniture, he made beautiful furniture. When he bought a Jeep Grand Cherokee, he had to factory-order the vehicle to get the exact color he wanted. Beauty excited him and his hands had a gift for creation.

Tom was a team-builder and a team player. Although he never liked authority very much, he loved the people around him and he advocated tirelessly for them. He could be blunt, but he was always constructive. Tom would tell you things no one would else would tell you. During my time as editor of Computerworld, I came to trust and confide in him about nearly everything.

Beginning in the late 90s, I joined Tom several times for day-long sailing excursions around Boston Harbor. He took to sailing like all his other hobbies: with passion. Tacking through the Harbor Islands with Tom was like watching the Travel Channel. When he wasn’t relating the history of landmarks along the route, he was explaining the geometry of sails or the complexity of nautical charts. He never lectured; he was just sharing. He always shared.

He was a burly guy with a gravely voice and boundless good humor. No matter how serious the situation, he could find a way to make a joke. His Twitter profile is one word: “Michievist.” Leave it to Tom to invent a word to describe himself.

He had a low-key laugh – “Heh heh heh” – and an enormous smile. He was quick with a wisecrack, but also with a gentle word of reassurance. When times were tough, he was the guy you wanted at your side because he always found a way to remind you that it’s just not that big a deal.

God, I miss him.


Mary is asking that any donations in his memory be made to Compassionate Cares ALS, at www.ccals.org. Cards and notes can be sent to 10 Allen Place, Sudbury, MA 01776, and you can reach Mary by at mlester@idgenterprise.com,

32 thoughts on “Remembering Tom

  1. Paul, thanks for sharing this really fantastic remembrance. He sounds like a really fascinating guy. Wish I’d gotten to meet him. I know what how difficult and downright tortuous ALS can be, so I hope his family and friends are able to take some consolation in the fact that his burden has finally been lifted.

    Thanks again for helping draw such a vivid picture of someone with so much depth. All my best to you and Tom’s family.
    David G.

  2. I’m very sad to hear about Tom’s passing. He left a lasting impression on me as well. Thank you for writing such a wonderful goodbye to him.

  3. Thank you, Paul, well done. If you learn of any funeral or memorial service plans, I hope you’ll pass them along.

  4. Tom was brilliant and powerful and incredibly patient with us lesser mortals — he never condescended, merely called others on their condescension.
    A lovely eulogy, Paul, for a life that ended too soon, and under the wrong circumstances.
    Thanks,

    Gatsby

  5. Beautifully written, Paul. Thank you. Tom in a nutshell. The Tom I remember was a teacher, a humorist, a musician, a maker of gorgeous furniture and other wood pieces, a sailor, a WWII and history buff, a walker and a terrific designer. We had our spats – I always wanted to know the why behind his design decisions and he didn’t always want to explain them, but I learned tons about print and web design, and a lot more about humor and relationships, from yes, Tom. He used to supply me with my beloved markers and endless sale tips and coupons for diet Pepsi. When I joined the Computerworld reporting staff, there was no room in the inn, so to speak, so I was housed in the back corner of the art department, which turned into a multi-month roll in hilarity. At the time, Tom was famous for posting wordless funny graphics on his outside cubicle wall – but the repartee that flew inside was even better. I am amazed we got any work done.

    Later, we worked on people and work projects together, and spent time talking about our mutually heavily Catholic childhoods, growing up in large families with Dads from Cambridge and similarly named siblings. My dad taught at the high school he attended. We talked about politics (work and world), history, god, World War II, and our aging parents, among other things. I miss those conversations. I miss Tom and his constant humor, his infectious chuckle, his desire to make things work for everyone. Tom could explain anything to anyone and make them laugh in the process. You wanted to attend his presentations. He did a highly success world tour of sorts of IDG International, teaching the Computerworld way, and making many friends in the process. His ideas, his amazing creativity and yeah, his desire to be part of a team, not above it. What you saw was what he was – I loved that about him. Absolutely no BS. And he didn’t require any from you. The work boots, jeans and twill shirts. His school-crossing yellow rain slicker. He uncharacteristically spiffed up for Gatsby’s wedding and was mortified when we cheered his haberdashery. . .

    Just the nicest, gruffly sweetest, and god damn smart guy ever. ALS is so unspeakably cruel. Please support Compassionate Cares ALS. I will miss him forever and think of him always.

    (sorry to be so wordy).

    Tish

  6. Thank you Paul. Very thoughtful. I’ve known Tom since High School. He was one of a kind. Tom was a great song writer, a wonderful entertainer, and was a VERY funny, intelligent and talented person. As Paul mentioned, among Tom’s many talents were guitarist, song writer, artist, designer, wood-worker, sailor, writer, furniture maker and his prized talent …friend maker. Not only could Tom make friends with ANYONE instantly, but he brought hundreds of friends together through his humor and music whose paths would otherwise have never crossed. My understanding is that there are no funeral or service arrangements, but that there may be a gathering of friends and acquaintances in the near future. One of our friends has posted some pictures here. http://www.zeleznik-klein.com/mmb/ There will be more pictures as time goes on.

  7. Thanks, Paul. Mary is planning a roast sometime after the first of the year. In her words, “Food and music will be involved. Possibly the police too, depending on the enthusiasm of the attendees.” Tom would have wanted it that way!

  8. Thank you, Mr. Gillin. You have beautifully captured Tom; if he were still alive, he’d be mortified. Being next oldest to him, he’s been in my life longer than any one else; your vivid words help soothe that Big Empty. I’ll guess that each of the other 4 remaining Monahans will instantly identify, first with your depiction of our brother, then with each of our own fierce intents to be like him, in our several sincere & irritatingly inexact variants. It is truly good to know Tom has so many other brothers and sisters, who miss him at least as much as we do. Be prepared to add in a few bad verses when we come together later.

  9. Kate: You’re the second of Tom’s siblings to respond and now I really can’t wait to meet you all. As far as bad verses, let’s just say I didn’t include everything I remember about Tom in this eulogy. I understand Mary is planning a roast in Tom’s memory. We must capture that on video for posterity (and YouTube).

  10. Paul: This is so lovely. I hope you know your post is being widely shared by friends and family. One correction has been noted: Tom’s preferred musical style was not rockabilly. The confusion is understandable, given that his true love was irreverently mangled bluegrass. I miss him terribly. But I’ve been reassuring everyone with this: Wherever he is now, he’s taken charge. He’s completely reorganized everything. And he’s saving the best spots for his pals. Happy trails, Tom!

  11. Well said Mary, and thanks Mr. Gillin for the post. I’m glad to see so many happy thoughts shared about Tom. I worked with Tom and Mary for a year as an aid, and this experience has definitely been a life changer, not only for me but any one who witnessed such an event like this! One of the last things that I mentioned to Tom privately was that his life from beginning to the very end, was created to help, and change all who came across such a being, and that we will forever be great-fully in dept to him for that. Mary’s love for Tom has also been a great impact on our lives, she is the true definition of love. You never heard her complain, or fuss, about anything and simply loved Tom. Happy trails Tom, thanks for the gift! 🙂

  12. I grew up in the same village as Tom and his family, also the product of a giant Irish Catholic family, and am a personal and spiritual colleague of his sister Kate. I do remember the power of his intellect and energy, and am happy to hear that his heart was just as big as Kate’s. It is truly one of the mysteries of life that so many beautiful humans leave us too soon, and so many idiots live to an overripe age. I look forward to a meeting of the Tom Monahan fan club.

  13. Several years ago my mother died. It was several weeks after she had open heart surgery for the second time. What was unusual about it was that she never got out of the hospital, was quite sick, but totally had her wits about her at all times. Her heart was having arrhythmias that caused her defibrillator to keep on firing, so it was decided that we would turn it off. The intensivist stopped sedating her, pulled her endotrachael tube, and I ended up telling her what was going to happen, and that she would probably have “the big one.” Her response? “Well, sayonara, then.”
    Tom sent me a very nice note expressing his sympathy, and ended it by saying, “I bet you didn’t even know she spoke Japanese.”

    He was one of a kind, and we’ll all miss him terribly.

  14. So sad to hear the news but reading Paul’s tribute brought back many memories of Tom–the gravely voice and the sometimes grumpy face, the lunch time power walks, the incredibly talented individual that he was. Tom, you will be missed by those of us who were privileged to have worked with you.

  15. Of the many characters that I knew in my 15 years at ComputerWorld, Tom Monahan was truly an original. The Texas Instruments were always worth the trip.
    He was my designer when CW took a run at the Office Automation and Communications publications markets. He was a joy to work with creative, imaginative and always fun. Knowing he’s gone makes me wish I’d kept in touch more. He will be missed.

  16. Paul and Tish, thanks so much. I can’t think of Tom without a smile coming to my face, and your stories have brought back Tom’s voice and humor, sometimes his one-liners being shot over the copydesk wall, when we didn’t know anyone else was listening. Tom, I think, was ALWAYS listening, and couldn’t pass up an opportunity for a good line if his life depended on it. His death is a loss to all of us but he certainly gave us all a lot while we were in his life.

  17. You’re right, KG. Tom was born with rabbit ears. He had a remarkable ability to monitor conversations around him!

  18. As someone who knew Tom from his bluegrass and camping shenanigans at Winterhawk and TPB I can only read this incredible piece and think of how little I knew the Man , yet realizing he was ALL THERE no matter what the venue.
    It makes it a little harder to look back realizing how much I’ve missed during the many years I’ve been out of touch with him , yet , reading these testimonials , understanding how rich this mans life was . I feel lucky to have been there for a small part of it . He was tough on me , but only because I deserved it , but it sure was funny anyway. How can you help but miss this incredible titan of a man !!

  19. Paul, Thank you so much for this. Tom was such a wonderful mixture of gruff and humane, and always one of my favorite people at CW. He had a way of making you feel at home, whatever the situation.

  20. I have not seen Tom or anyone from IDG for many years but Tom was a guy that no one could forget. I think your description of him is accurate, tender and honors him in a way I believe he would have enjoyed though he would have teased you mercilessly about it. Though Tom had the natural ego of someone with his talent and intellect, he was also self-effacing. I loved that trait in him. Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories of our friend and former colleague.

  21. “Monahan,” as we all addressed him in the cubical, was truly a one of a kind character. He hired me in 1982. It was Tom, Hank, Kristie and I who shared the space, and every day was an adventure. Tom would arrive late most days and send Mike Lowe in a tizzy looking for him. He would start the morning with his cigarettes and diet Pepsi and was rarely without the two in close reach at any time. With no workplace smoking restrictions at the time, Kristie and I were constantly on him about the smoke. But Tom would just laugh at us (neurotic) “kids” because he never got sick. He claimed nothing could live in his body. Nothing made that man move faster than the musical sound of the “truck” – his source of junk food rations for the day. Needless to say, Tom (at that time) was the antithesis of a health nut.

    An editorial meeting was lackluster without Tom. He was one of the most creative idea men I’ve known. He drove me absolutely crazy because the death of course was in the details. We traveled to many photo shoots together. None more memorable than the day he loaded up his Westfalia van and took off ahead of me. I thought I’d lost him through the tollbooth and sped up down Rte. 90E trying to locate his van. I found it and tucked my car in position following him into Boston only to see the van hovering next to me was an identical van with Tom in the driver’s seat laughing at me so hard I swear the van was shaking!

    Boy did that guy love to laugh, but even more he liked to make others laugh! He was a master at multi-tasking and while standing, could smoke, drink, cut a line of type with an x-acto blade – all while telling a story. He loved to tell his stories. Problem was we’d heard them all before! Kristie and I’d just continue our work ignoring Tom except to raise a hand with fingers displaying how many times we’d heard it before. He’d continue in spite of us gruffly saying, “f— you Bartolotti. Lucky for him an audience was always readily available, and visitors to the art department never left without what they came for – a comic distraction from the day’s work.

    Tom, I’m smiling just writing this, and I wish I had contacted you while you were sick. I’m glad you found love and happiness during your time here – you’ll never be forgotten. Heavens got one crazy storyteller now!!! LOL Ann Bartolotti Duran

  22. What a wonderful recollection, Ann. You had an “in the trenches” perspective on Tom that few of us saw, but the image of him smoking, drinking, telling a story and working a paste-up board with an Exacto knife is something I remember well.

    Tom did give up smoking and drinking years ago. It must have been difficult for him because he loved his addictions. He compensated by taking long walks while carrying two large rocks, which he deposited at the top of a hill. That rock pile is still out there somewhere. People will discover it hundreds of years from now and think it was created for some kind of religious ceremony. But it was just Tom’s rock pile.

  23. If I am smiling this much reading these stories, I can only imagine the smile on Tom’s face!. Ann, your memory of Mike Lowe storming off, while Tom “lollygagged” about had me really giggling. Tom made a connection with everyone, and knew how to push the limits, and more importantly, knew how to have fun. Thank you Tom for showing us all how to lighten up and make that 9-to-5 day just that much more fun. A legend if ever there was one.

  24. Sorry to hear of Tom’s passing. It’s nice to read all the great memories everyone had of Tom, and yes I remember holding up fingers for how many times you heard the same story over and over but let him go on with the story anyway. Paul, Thank you for your tribute to Tom.

  25. Paul, thank you for beautifully capturing a true original. I’m just getting to this news late, having buried my mom a couple of weeks after Tom after long illness. You, like Tom, made me laugh, think, learn, remember, choke up and smile. Thank you. Til then, T.M. Best, Joe

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