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A tribute to late Times outdoors editor Terry Tomalin

Tampa Bay Times outdoors editor Terry Tomalin died Thursday. Jack Sheppard served as sports editor during most of the 26-plus years that Tomalin was outdoors editor.

They were four simple words that I grew to love.

"You got a cooler?" said the familiar voice from the other end of the phone, the question delivered despite Terry knowing full well that by now I'd learned to never leave home without one.

I usually had no idea where Terry Tomalin had been that day. But by that question alone, I knew he'd been fishing somewhere, and my wife, Cindy, and I were about to become the beneficiaries. Within the hour, he'd plop a baggie of pink filets, packed in ice, on my Tampa Bay Times desk.

No matter the morning catch — grouper, redfish, kingfish, whatever — Terry always made sure Cindy and I would be enjoying fresh fish on the grill for dinner that night. The delivery usually included a cooking tip or two (courtesy of his many friends in the restaurant industry).

It was just one of the perks that came with being Terry's sports editor for more than 25 years. Certainly the tastiest. But there were more. A lot more.

Terry was the consummate newspaper man. Journalists are idealists, oozing with passion and commitment. We believe there's no wrong we can't right. We believe we can make a difference in the world. And even in a department that some still believe is just fun and games, there are mountains of examples of great investigative reporting.

Terry was one of those hard-core guys. He had already made a mark as an aggressive young reporter, first at the Leesburg Commercial, then at the Lakeland Ledger where he exposed the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the Polk County Sheriff's Office, leading to the sheriff's resignation.

After Terry took a break in his career to hike around New Zealand for more than a year, our former boss, Joe Childs, convinced him to return to the then-St. Petersburg Times as an outdoors writer.

It was a perfect fit. Terry would do anything for a story. The more dangerous, the better. He would hunt wild boar with his bare hands. He would bungee jump. He would skydive. Just last year he supported my new career with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay by rappelling 19 stories down the old Bank of America building in St. Pete.

He would take us on long adventures, kayaking through gator-infested rivers, or mocking Mother Nature's wrath in open water — by paddleboard, kayak, canoe, sailboat or any other method anyone dared present as a challenge.

But Terry also loved news. He took on the wildly popular Suncoast Tarpon Roundup, which was killing dozens of the prized trophy fish every year, and through a series of stories helped pressure organizers into making it a catch-and-release event. It was his idea to send samples of pricey grouper sandwiches from area restaurants to a research lab, exposing that many of your favorite eating spots were selling cheap imitations — even Vietnamese catfish — leading to penalties and fines, a great news story that generated a lot of buzz.

He created the daily Captain's Corner, enlisting the best local experts to share their fishing secrets with Times readers. And although almost all were also his friends, he set the standards high and held everyone accountable. Miss a deadline once, you get a tongue-lashing. Miss it again, you were gone. Terry knew that regular exposure in the Times was a great marketing opportunity, and he'd have a replacement by the end of the day.

Terry lobbied for years to expand our outdoors coverage and finally convinced Times editors to create a monthly special section we called Gulf & Bay. It included his usual fishing and hunting stories but also tasty recipes, and Great Catch photos, and anything else Terry found interesting. It only lasted a few years because of dwindling advertising, but it was named the Best Outdoors Section of the Year by the Outdoors Writers Association of America just about every year it was in print. That was all Terry.

I have a book's worth of personal stories with Terry. About the luscious experience of catching kingfish out of John's Pass at sunrise, then stopping at Gators restaurant on the way in so they could cook up the fresh catch for lunch. He would bring Boston Market chicken noodle soup to my house if he heard I called in sick. He would take my sons fishing and canoeing, even helping my youngest get his first job out of college. I'm sure his colleagues snickered that he was just kissing up to the boss. What they didn't know was this is how he treated everyone.

My favorite story, though, has to be the time he took me and my dad fishing. My dad was well into his 60s by the time he finally accepted Terry's invitation to make the drive from Tavares to St. Pete for a day of chasing kingfish. My dad had been an avid fisherman in his younger days, but that had slowed considerably over the years, and he was quite excited at the chance to "catch something big."

Terry lined up a local captain, and we headed under the Skyway Bridge in the early morning to fish the channel near Egmont Key. It was your typical summer day — hot, humid, little breeze and, for the first several hours, not even a nibble. The lack of action and billowing clouds on the horizon that telegraphed one of those fast-forming Florida thunderstorms had us thinking that Dad's big day on the water was about to end in disappointment.

Just about the time the first swell hit, the reel on the pole closest to Terry began to wail. We finally had our fish — at the worst possible time — but Terry instinctively yanked the pole out of its holder and thrust it into Dad's hands.

The rain came hard and fast. The waves were pounding, each bigger than the last. The bow of the boat was heaving, and it took everything my dad had in him to stay on his feet. Terry was barking orders, alternating between encouragement and instructions, but I know Dad couldn't hear a thing in all the chaos.

It was pretty clear that Dad was either going to the deck, going overboard or dropping the pole — probably cracking a rib or two along the way.

But Terry, as always, took charge. No worries. Instinctively, without hesitation, he wrapped his arms around my dad from behind, and in an instant became the strength in his legs, the muscles in his arms and the resolve in his heart. Hell or high water, he was not losing this fish.

It took an eternity to land the king, with Terry literally holding my dad up the whole time, lifting the tip of the pole time and again while Dad gathered in the resulting slack. By the end they were both soaked and exhausted, but Dad had his trophy — and what would ultimately be his last great fishing adventure.

It was classic Terry. Whatever it takes. Mind over matter. Power through. It was his mantra, and it served him well until last week.

I suspect about now, Terry would probably hate all this attention.

But man, he would have loved the buzz.

Rest easy, my friend. Tight lines, and don't forget the cooler.

Terry Tomalin celebration Friday

Terry Tomalin's life will be celebrated and his memory honored at a sunset ceremony and paddle out, in the tradition of watermen around the world, at 7 p.m. Friday at Fort De Soto Park, East Beach, Shelter 14. The community he loved is invited.

A tribute to late Times outdoors editor Terry Tomalin 05/23/16 [Last modified: Monday, May 23, 2016 8:20pm]
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