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Alta states

Tom Thomson: Charting a course for the future

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He's like a magpie. Nothing, it seems, ever gets thrown away. Indeed, his house in White Gold Estates is a repository for a life's worth of adventures: from skis and snowboards and bikes and fishing tackle and other sundry sports gear on the lower floors to pots and ceramics and paintings and banners and other sundry artists' tools on the higher ones. His dining room table, for example, would be hard-pressed to deliver enough room for a meal. As for his living room, forget about entertaining people there, for that serves as his painting studio.

He's like a closet Renaissance Man. Painter, potter, teacher, philosopher, pro athlete - not to forget lifelong volunteer - he trawls the community in search of new inspiration. Nothing escapes his avid gaze. Nothing is too trite or too ponderous for his attention. His art is tactile to the extreme. His politics are based on the power of mutual respect. And if he doesn't get outside once a day for a little exercise, he gets grumpy...

Yet rookie Whistler council member Tom Thomson wouldn't have it any other way. "I am what I am," he says. "No apologies. No excuses. What you see is what you get..."

And what Whistler has gotten in the youthful 68-year-old is one seriously engaged citizen. "I've always believed in giving back to my community," explains Thomson. "I love this place. I love the people who've made Whistler their home. To me it's an honour to serve as a member of this council." He smiles and I can just catch a hint of the mischievous kid he once was. "I mean, I've learned so much in the last year. And what I've learned is that Whistler's administrative team is the envy of most other towns."

Like so many who've put down roots in this place, Thomson started life a long ways from here. "I was raised in Scarborough," he says. "I thought I was a real tough guy. But I was on a freight train to nowhere." He laughs. "Fortunately, my parents moved us out to the West Coast when I was 15. It saved my life..."

A talented athlete, Thomson excelled at hockey and football at UBC. He would eventually parlay his football talent into a stint with the CFL after graduation. But it was a random trip to Whistler in 1968 that really changed his life's path. This is how he describes the moment: "It was the spring, and I'd already sampled the terrain at Mt. Seymour and Mt. Baker. But they'd both left me less than impressed. Still, one of my friends kept insisting that there was a really big mountain north of Squamish that we should check out. So that's what we did..."

The trip up took forever. "I couldn't believe how far we were going," recounts Thomson. "It felt like we were linking up all these different logging roads. I kept asking the driver: 'When are we going to get there?' But he'd just shake his head and laugh."

Finally the car stopped in a huge parking lot with a horse wandering through it. At the far end of the lot was a hangar-looking thing with GONDOLA painted in white on its roof.  "It was pretty funny," says Thomson, "to get shoved into these little tin cans and literally pushed up the mountain. I'd never seen anything like it." Unfortunately, he wasn't going to see much of the mountain either. "We hadn't gone 50 feet when the lights went out. I mean, we couldn't see a thing." Another chuckle escapes. "I didn't know it then, but we were in the middle of one of those legendary Coast Mountain blizzards."

Alas, the poor young guy was hardly dressed for the storm. "I was wearing blue jeans and Stanfield underwear," he remembers. "And you know how good those 'Boggners' were at keeping out the weather - the wind went in the front and out the back."

But as ragged as his clothing might be, his skis, he tells me, were top-notch. "I'd gone out to Sparlings on Granville Street and bought myself a brand-new pair of Kneissl White Stars," he says. "They were the ski to have that year..."

The ride up the mountain seemed interminable. By the time the gondola reached mid-station, Tom was ready to strap his skis on and ride down the hill. "Are we there yet?" he asked. "No way," his friend said. "We still have another chairlift ride to go."

That's when Thomson realized that this Whistler Mountain place was a lot bigger than he'd imagined. "The Red Chair was amazing," he says. "It lurched and gurgled and grumbled and stopped and finally got us to the top." He smiles. Sighs. "I couldn't wait to get off that thing. I thought I was going to freeze to death."

His friends were still keen to ski. But Thomson wasn't so sure anymore. "I told them: 'If I make it down this mountain I'm never coming up again.'" He stops for a second. Takes a long breath. "I remember just how much snow had fallen that day. And there I was, with my 210cm skis and bamboo poles and very little experience..."

No surprise then that it took them the better part of the day to get down Whistler. No surprise too that Thomson was miserable the whole way down. "My Stanfields were soaked with sweat, my jeans were soaked with snow. I was nearly hypothermic. It was ridiculous." Thomson swore he'd never go back up that mountain. But his friends had other ideas. "They said: 'We're here for the weekend. So stop your whining and help us find a bed for the night.'"

They found refuge that night at the Christiana Inn. "For three bucks a head," remembers Thomson, "we got to sleep on the floor of the main room - right by the fireplace." Yet another wave of laughter. "But we had to get up at 5 the next morning because that's when the first guests were expected for breakfast."

Who knows what might have happened if the young football player had convinced his friends to leave Whistler after that first day. But he didn't. And when they woke up the next morning the sun had come out. "It was a bluebird day," says Thomson. "And there was all this new snow. So we rushed through breakfast and quickly made it to the hill."

There are moments in life that can determine one's future in the blink of an eye. For Thomson that morning provided such a moment. "We climbed up above Whistler Bowl and I looked down at the valley and I can still remember saying to myself: 'I'm going to live here someday...' And I was completely serious. That was my new goal in life."

Meanwhile though, there was the small detail of making a living. Thomson toyed with being a school administrator - he even got halfway through his doctorate at UBC in that discipline - but in the end, he realized that teaching kids was what he really liked to do. So for the next 30 years, that's what he did. "I was known to the kids at Eric Hamber High School as Mr. T," he says. "And every now and then I'll see one of my former students at Whistler. 'Hey Mr T,' they'll say. 'Remember those things that you taught me about and told me to look into? Well, I did. And now that's what I do.'"

Surely Thomson's seemingly unbounded energy needed more outlets than just teaching. "You're right," he says. "Teaching high school was just my week-day job. In the summer I did the marine patrol for a Vancouver radio station and in the winter I did the snow report for them." He stops. Just a hint of humour flashes across his eyes. "It was pretty funny actually. I would do my snow reports during basketball practice in the morning. You could actually hear the balls bouncing against the floor on the radio..."

There was also the small detail of falling in love and making a child (the other Tom Thomson in the valley), as well as the groundbreaking moment Tom senior first bought a house at Whistler. "Everyone kept telling me: 'You now have a job in skiing. Now you need a place in the mountains.' Well, I didn't have a lot of cash then, but one realtor told me he had just the place for me." A short pause. "It was a beautiful lot at Nesters. But the moment we opened the door, we were engulfed by this plague of pack rats..."

Thomson refused to be deterred however. "I eventually took the leap and bought a small A-Frame on Toni Sailer Lane." He laughs. "And once that got too small for us, I built this house." When Thomson retired from teaching in the late '90s, the new "weekend" home became his full-time museum, er, residence... and he's really never looked back.

So when his friends encouraged him to put his name in the electoral hat last year, Thomson stepped in once more 'for the team'. "I didn't take this running for office thing lightly," he tells me. "I sat at my easel and did some serious soul-searching. Do I care enough? Am I committed enough? Am I bright enough? Am I tough enough? And finally - do I have the intestinal fortitude for the job?" He stops speaking. Looks long and hard in my direction. "Only when I could answer these questions in the affirmative could I be sure that my election would be something positive for the community."

As it turns out, Tom Thomson got the most votes of any candidate in last year's election. Just last week he was voted "favourite Whistlerite" by Pique readers. So how does he feel about the job now? "Going into this," he says, "I was very concerned about who ran the town. Now I know that Whistler is served by a very talented administrative staff. I mean, there is a tremendous amount of good work being done here." One last smile. "And that makes me really excited for Whistler's future. You know, 'liven'er and given'er.'"