There are all kinds of partners. There are fishing partners, hunting partners and golf partners. There are business partners and dinner partners, life partners and more.
Partners, real partners, have to be people you can trust and know they can trust you. People you like to be with and make you want to be as much of a partner to them as they are to you. In my 70 years I’ve had all kinds of partners in a wide variety of areas and the best are those who are as happy to see you make a great shot or catch as you are for them to do the same. True partners share in each other’s successes. Partners are partners and with just a few exceptions, I’ve cherished them all.
Last week I was not alone in losing one of the best of them when Tom Cushman passed away after a brief illness at the age of 83. San Diegans, particularly sports fans will remember that in 1982, Tom arrived here as the new Sports Editor selected to lead the sports department of the The Tribune.
In preparation for his move from the Philadelphia Enquirer, Tom had told Assistant Sports Editor Bud Poliquin that he believed it was important for a well-rounded sports section to include coverage of the outdoors. I’d been providing the paper with outdoor features for a few years and was familiar with the local landscape of the outdoors and to a lesser degree the paper itself – so Bud hired me as a freelancer for the purpose of providing a weekly column and periodic features covering the outdoors.
Not long after Tom’s arrival he made a point of introducing himself to me and assuring that he felt outdoor coverage was important. In the course of our conversation it became clear to me that he was not familiar with the county’s outdoor resources, but wanted to know more. In response, I did something I’m prone to do when meeting curious newcomers – offered him an all-day tour of one of the most biologically diverse areas found anywhere in the world for a region of its size.
Tom agreed, and asked if his son Scott who was between graduation from high school and his first year of college could come along, which was fine with me. We picked a day when both of us would be completely free and as an early riser suggested we try to hit the road at sunrise. Tom it turns out was not such an early riser so we compromised on a departure an hour or so later.
At the appointed hour, Tom and Scott arrived at our Tierrasanta home where I loaded them into my ’73 Dodge van and anxiously began a tour that I hoped would expose to them as much of my native county as could be done in one day. It is something that I also did with my students while teaching part-time at two local universities and believe should be mandatory for all freshmen, most of whom graduate without a clue of the region they lived in for one of the most important chunks of their lives.
Tom sat in the passenger seat while Scott sat in a wobbly aluminum patio chair I’d set up just behind the van’s engine cowling.
Being kind of a clockwise guy, my plan was to head north to Palomar, then down to Lake Henshaw before turning south on 79 to 78 east at Santa Ysabel on the way to Julian then south again to Lake Cuyamaca for a brief stop, then to another east on I-8 followed by another turn south to Campo before heading back to the west along Highway 94 through Barrett Junction and then past Lower and Upper Otay before turning north on I-5 and then I-15 to get back home.
Soon we were past Lake Wohlford and into Pauma Valley so I could take them on my favorite route to Palomar State Park via Nate Harrison Grade which turns from pavement into a truck trail in need of maintenance. For those of you old enough to remember, it would have been described as an E Ticket ride had it been at Disneyland. Figuring my passengers might be getting a little queasy gave me the opportunity to pause at the site of Harrison’s cabin and tell them what I’d heard and read about the former slave who settled there and made quite a name for himself in the area.
A few minutes later we were standing at the edge of Doane Pond where a few trout were rising and a group of kids from Camp Palomar hiked through ferns along the lakeside trail on a patently beautiful morning. Everything on the tour went off on queue as if I had planned it as a bald eagle perched in a pine tree at Lake Cuyamaca and deer browsed in nearby meadows.
Because I love this county and love sharing it, it’s hard to shut me up sometimes and I’m surprised Tom and his son’s ears were not bleeding by the time they climbed out of my van for the final time. Nonetheless, they said they were duly impressed and Tom found enough fodder from the tour for a column that appeared a few days later.
I suppose this is a perfect example of my verbosity and the tendency to go out of control and off the tracks. I’ve digressed into telling about the tour rather than my dear friend, but I defend that digression because the tour was the beginning of a friendship that quickly expanded to include our families, and our wives in particular over the last 35 years.
Tom and Lois had never seen the Eastern Sierras, so together with my wife Andrea and I, we rented a condo in Mammoth where Tom and Lois fell in love with the dramatic scenery, and Tom was enthralled by the trout fishing. Years later they returned the favor by introducing us to Colorado with stops in Estes Park, Pikes Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park. It was at the latter he turned off on his favorite Vista Point, at it is there that his ashes will be scattered.
I’d covered the outdoors for The Tribune for a decade or so when the paper was merged with the San Diego Union and Tom was picked to continue on as Sports Editor and lead columnist.
As with any business, mergers can be pretty messy, particularly when those businesses, despite being owned by the same publisher competed with each other every day. It was a tough time for many as people lost their jobs or saw their duties changed. Freelancers like me were understandable casualties to protect full-time employees, but that did not change our relationship in the least as we remained occasional fishing partners and along with our wives regular dinner partners a night or two most weeks.
As I am a sports fan in general and Aztec fanatic in particular, Tom and I would often retire to the patio with a glass or two of whiskey while the ladies chatted inside. Tom enjoyed my stories about growing up in San Diego in the 50’s and 60’s when it really was something special, while I was enthralled with his in the course of a writing career in which he became recognized as one of the greatest sports columnists of his generation. I believe Tom was awarded regularly for the best column or story of the year for every sport other than bowling and Roller Derby.
Despite his stature as one of our greatest sports writers, Tom Cushman was one of the most humble men I have ever known and at times seemed almost embarrassed by the praise heaped upon him. When he was given credit for the manner in which he handled his move to take over sports at The Tribune or the inevitably rough waters associated with the merger, he invariably deflected that credit to those who worked under him.
One of the best things I was ever able to do for Tom, was introduce him to fellow Lake Manager Hugh Marx who quickly became his prime fishing partner, first at Cuyamaca, then Jennings and often in the bays. Hugh and I shared the belief that if Tom was not the best angler we’d ever fished with, he was the one partner who enjoyed fishing more than any other.
After a distinguished career here, Tom retired and although they loved San Diego, Tom and Lois moved to Colorado Springs which is where his career as a sports writer had begun and reunited them with old friends. The move got them closer to family in Iowa and their son and his family in Chicago, but it did not separate us. Every year they would return to San Diego for four to six weeks for visits that escaped what they hoped would be the worst part of Colorado Springs’ winters, and we would periodically travel to the Rockies to visit them. Emails and phone calls went back and forth every week.
One thing Tom and I often talked about before the ice in our last drink melted, was Tom’s desire that one day I would be able to join him, his son, brother-in-law and nephew for a foray into the waters of Canada to fish for walleye and pike, the former being the one species he may have enjoyed eating as much as catching.
A few weeks ago I was offered and immediately seized upon an opportunity to fish in Canadian waters. While there, and whether catching or eating walleye, my mind frequently drifted to Tom and how his plans for me had been realized without him. As soon as my story about the trip was up and posted on SDFish, I sent it to Tom as an attachment to an email indicating I wished he could have been along. I knew he’d be thrilled that I’d finally made the trip and would get a kick out of the photos.
What I did not know was that earlier on the day I’d sent it, Tom and Lois had embarked on a trip from their home in Colorado Springs to purchase a new home north of Chicago where they would be closer to Scott and his family.
It was there that Tom fell ill and in a week passed away at the age of 83, and very much as he wished, without “heroic” medical procedures or measures. That was something we’d talked about in the patio many times and most recently during their annual visit this past spring.
I’m happy for Tom that after a remarkable career filled with loving family and friends and after deciding he was spent, he was able to go out on his own terms, terms that first and foremost did not prolong the agony over his death for those he loved and who loved him.
I am sorry that he did not get to see the story and photos I sent about the north woods fishing trip he always touted and hoped I’d be able to experience, preferably together.
So why am I telling you all of this instead of using this space to provide another fishing story?
Because this my friends is much more important.
Because your life too is filled with different friends and partners of many stripes and from different areas of your life – and I can promise you this – it is never too early or too often to tell them how much they mean to you!
Note: Regrettably I found no suitable photos of Tom and I fishing together and while this column is primarily about Tom, it is also about the value of partners, so I’ve included a few photos of various partners over the years to illustrate that point as well.