July 9, 2009
by Laura Winkleblack
Tom died of a heart attack on July 8, 2009. He was born in Detroit and raised in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Tom received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, apprenticed with John Glick at Plum Tree Pottery, and earned an MFA in ceramics from Louisiana State University. After teaching pottery and making pots in Montana, Colombia, Spain, Alaska, Calgary and Winnipeg, he moved to Oregon in 2000 with his wife, Kathryn Finnerty; together, they founded Pleasant Hill Pottery. In 2004, he became a pottery instructor at Lane Community College. Tom taught and mentored scores of young potters in the U.S. and Canada, and designed and built kilns in Michigan, Alaska, Winnipeg and Oregon. Tom’s pots have been exhibited throughout North America, published in ceramics books and magazines, and featured in the film The Go-Getter, for which he was a creative consultant.
In addition to being a celebrated and beloved ceramic artist and teacher, Tom was a gourmet, gourmand, musicologist, sports aficionado, adventurist, master of ceremonies and world-class bon vivant. His joy was contagious, his wit superlative, his hospitality bountiful and his spirit immeasurable. To meet Tom was to know joy, to know Tom was to learn it.
Tom will be celebrated and enormously missed by his wife Kathryn, his mother Ann, his siblings Margaret, Sarah, Matthew, Lisa and Martha, his nephews and nieces Casey, Claire, Mike, Laura, Stephanie, Dan, Teresa, Anna and Emma, father-in-law Tom Finnerty, brother-in-law David Finnerty, godchildren Freya Tagseth and Ian Bruggeman, and hundreds of other colleagues, friends and relations. He was predeceased by his sister Mary and his father, Richard.
Tom’s cousin, Martin Hynes, delivered this beautiful tribute at the funeral.
I just have to say how extraordinary and unsurprising it is to see so many of you here today. And what a very attractive and lively bunch of churchgoers we are. But I think you’ll all agree how strange this is. How really very strange, considering we all know who should be the master of ceremonies at any assemblage as fine as this one. None of us will ever meet someone more alive than Tom Rohr. No one ever got more life out of 45 years than Tom Rohr. Tom was so alive, in fact, I really expect him any minute now; he never was the most punctual person, anyway. He’ll come through that door over there in a cloud of clay dust and hot sauce, right in the middle of my whole thing, and give me a little wave with one of those fantastic hands: “Hey, buddy – you’re doing good. Total victory. We’ll get a little snacklet after. “
It may shock you to learn Tom was not the most avid churchgoer. However, no one can doubt that he embodied, embraced and fully lived the core of the gospel, learned from his loving and very patient parents Ann and Dick. As far as I can remember from all the Sundays I spent in the front pew right there, growing up, it comes down to this: Love Thy Neighbor. Well, Tom’s neighborhood was all-inclusive and king-sized. It stretched from Fairbanks to Barcelona, from Colombia to Calgary, from Portland to New Orleans. On Friday, Tom’s friend Laura Winkleblack told me – you couldn’t be in a room with Tom Rohr and not know he loved you. You also couldn’t be in a room with Tom Rohr and not be enlisted to stack wood, but that was love, too. He could be very persuasive.
One thing Tom loved was games and another thing he loved was beating you at them. On Wednesday when my father called with the news of Tom’s death, I was – at that moment – reading an article on The Onion website about how Scrabble was invented to destroy relationships. And I was thinking to myself – oh, I have to send this to Tom and Kath. As long as you didn’t mind losing, Scrabble with Tom was a perfect night of entertainment. While the rest of us squinted and toiled, Tom, chuckling to himself, would arrange the letters on his rack into sweet tangles of vowel-deprived nonsense, turning them around for everyone to read; shedignegard, fedribulax, thequilber… And then, after having shown you he had nothing, he would somehow pull out a legitimate triple word score for 107 points, and step away to make everyone pulled-pork sandwiches.
In 1998, I stood on this altar and spoke at my mother’s funeral. In 2000, we were here to happily witness my father marrying his wonderful wife Jo Anne. And then, later that year, all of us in the western branch of our family got very, very lucky when Tom and Kathryn decided to move to Pleasant Hill. They became another brother and sister to me, and their house a second home, a stop on every travel, safe haven, writing retreat, and film set. The film is called The Go-Getter, and not only was it written and partly shot at Pleasant Hill Pottery; not only were Tom’s kiln, firing crew, friends, pots and geodesic dome featured front and center in one sequence; not only were Jack and Maddie both lovingly photographed in full glory, but in The Go-Getter, Tom Rohr achieved something very few other humans have managed: Tom Rohr, as an extra, appears in scenes of a film alongside an actor who is, essentially, playing Tom Rohr. Imagine the charisma that takes. You don’t have to imagine it, of course, because you know Tom. Together with his fictional doppelganger, there’s Tom unloading the kiln, sweeping out the kiln site, bringing food to the table, and throwing a match onto a gasoline-soaked bunch of wood which explodes into a perfect, instant bonfire.
The first Christmas I stayed at Pleasant Hill, Tom and I were driving home at night through the fog and deer and Christmas lights on Ridgeway. Tom pulled the van over at the top of the driveway, and told me his vision for a beacon that would mark Pleasant Hill Pottery and light the way for cash-carrying ceramics enthusiasts. It would be up there on the roof, Tom said – glowing in the dark. A twenty-foot-high neon teapot. He knew a guy who could make it, of course. A friend of his who he’d trade something with, and then get the firing crew to install and secure it, and, by the way, just for now, of course – don’t tell Kath.
The neon teapot didn’t get done. Some things didn’t get done. But only because Tom thought of so many good things to do, and did so many of them, all the time, every day, and well into the night. He could have lived to 145, and still had a list of what he planned next, and next, and next. So many good things to do, and all the best ones were for Kathryn. Renovations, upgrades, gifts and treats… for Kathryn. Take 200 bucks and get yourself something nice. Kath, you want some popcorn? More room for your studio? What about an unrivaled birthday celebration? What about all of that summed up in one word I heard Tom say hundreds of different ways thousands of different times, aimed across a couch or kitchen or kiln at his perfect partner, the love of his life, his collaborator, and co-conspirator. One word offered as promise, praise, or apology. One small word much more valuable than anything worth 107 points in Scrabble: Baby.
We are, of course, still with Tom, but what will we do without him? There will be a party today, and tonight. A celebration that will continue. And we can think of all the fires Tom Rohr started. My cousin, my dear friend, my brother and brother to so many others. We can think of all of Tom’s fires, and start another one. We can think of all of Tom’s fires and warm ourselves up. Lift ourselves up. Think of all of Tom’s fires and light one yourself. It could be small. It could be a candle on a table full of roasted meat. Or a campfire on the Copper River. A pizza oven in Oregon, a fireplace in Michigan or a kiln in St. Agathe. We’ll remember all the fires Tom started, and we’ll tend them, because Tom taught us how. And even on our darkest winter nights, when we miss him the most, the light from those fires will hover just ahead of us like the beacon Tom intended. Like a twenty-foot high neon teapot on the roof.