Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Thomas ‘Tom’ Towey

by Steve Sparks, January 27, 2010

I met with Tom at The Boonville Lodge in the heart of Anderson Valley, the bar/restaurant he has owned and operated for the past four years but which has now had to close due to the inflated rent demands by the landlord. We grabbed a couple of soft drinks (really) and sat down to chat.

Tom was born in Burbank, California in August 1962, the middle child of five born to Bob Towey and Carol Sales. The Sales are of German (Grandfather Harvey) and Irish (Grandmother Edith) heritage. Tom’s paternal grandparents came over from County Mayo in Ireland and settled in North Dakota and then Montana where Tom’s grandfather, the first Thomas Towey, was a dentist. Bob Towey attended Gonzaga University before serving in the Marine Corps, then returning to school at Loyola, Marymount. Carol had gone to UCLA where she met Bob before transferring to the University of Southern California (USC).

The five children were named Terese, Tamara, Tom (Thomas), Tracey, and Todd and one of Tom’s earliest memories of his parents was when they appeared on the television game show, ‘Let’s Make a Deal.’ “My Dad chose the wrong curtain and they came home with a blender, a pencil sharpener, little stuff like that, when if he’d gone with the other one they would have won a car!”

Tom’s father was a legal specialist with an insurance company and later taught Business Law at UCLA Extension. “My Mother was a homemaker but also worked as a secretary and accountant. We grew up in Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley and were raised Catholic, attending mass every Sunday as a family and taking communion and going to confession. I was a good kid but always seemed to get into some mischief. I remember as a very young boy being left alone in the kitchen with a screwdriver and taking all the cupboard doors off. Hey, I was four and I had a screwdriver! I was an altar boy. One Christmas Eve the TV’s Ed McMahon was at our church giving a speech. My job was to ring the bells at certain moments. I fell asleep and dropped them, making a terrible noise at the wrong moment. I went to Catholic school until 2nd Grade when we moved ‘uptown’ to Woodland Hills.”

Tom’s parents split up when he was in Junior High and his father took custody of all five of them, aged between 9 and 17. “I was about 14 and went a little wild for a few years.” He attended Taft High School (whose alumni also include AV residents Kirk Wilder and Brian Schriner) but his focus was not on academics. He put all his energy into doing what most of his fellow tanned and longhaired friends did – surfing and skateboarding. “I did play little league baseball and our family went to many USC sports events, but I liked to be with my buddies on the beach and in the water. Then I got a part-time job at the Woodland Hills Tennis and Racquetball Club, helping with the catering. I started to play racquetball and became good enough to get sponsorship, receiving free shoes, shirts, rackets, and traveling to tournaments. That took over my social life but although I never played high school sports, I managed to always find time to surf. My life was simply racquetball and surfing for a while.”

“I was an average student, I guess, ‘B’ grades, and neither a jock nor a studious type. I just didn’t apply myself. My buddies and I were the ‘fun guys’ and always threw the best parties.” Tom graduated in 1980 and went to LA Pierce College with journalism as his major and he became sports editor on the college newspaper. However, after a couple of years he had become friends with two older students on the paper, both ex-military men. “They were very competent in everything they did. They were pro-military and spoke very highly of the benefits of the GI Bill and taking advantage of the opportunities it offered and the sense of pride they had gained from serving on a team. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had a part-time job as a busboy, then a waiter, and I would go to a supermarket to stock shelves late at night. I was living in an apartment in Canoga Park with a crazy buddy, John Bender, and partying a lot. I was 20 years old and needed direction so in May 1982 I decided to join the Navy.”

Tom was under the impression that for every dollar he earned this would be matched by the government for later schooling. It turned out there was a limit of $8K. “My plan was to get about $30K and go to USC, but then I found out the truth of what I had done. I thought, ‘Oh, shit. That’s not much money. I was not so naïve to think it would be easy but in boot camp there were some very tough non-commissioned officers in charge of us and there was plenty of ‘down and give me fifty, recruit!’”

Following two months at boot camp in San Diego, Tom was sent to Operations Specialist School in Virginia where he was trained to work on weapons, navigation, and radar systems. He graduated a year later and was assigned to the USS Callaghan, a guided missile destroyer. “It had been bought from the Shah of Iran and was completely retrofitted with all the latest equipment and technology. Later, in one of President Bush Jr.’s first acts, it was sold on to Taiwan.” Tom served for two years on that ship, most of the time on two western Pacific tours which included experiencing a severe typhoon that caused a lot of damage to the ship, with stops in Shanghai, China and Manila in the Philippines. He was then sent on an extended tour in the Sea of Japan searching for the black box from Korean passenger flight KAL 007 that had been shot down by a Russian MIG fighter. “We looked for that for several months during which time there was much posturing by the Russians and ourselves. It was very tense at times. We were often followed and they even came within 100 yards of us at one point and we knew they had locked on to us with their weapons. We did not really want to do anything because of the probable repercussions. We took evasive action and they turned away but not before shining very powerful lights right on to our bridge. The cold war was certainly still going on at that time and it was often a little hairy but ultimately I served in a peacetime navy.”

Tom was honorably discharged in 1985 with a rank of Petty Officer, 2nd Class. “I collected my $8K, not nearly enough to get to USC, so I thought I’d travel a little. The family of a friend from the Navy owned a hotel in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and there was a job available for me so I set off in my Toyota with a camper attached and drove across the country. I was hired as a waiter and bartender at The Jared Coffin House hotel for the summer season, staying at my friend’s family’s home. It was party time as I lived the wild lifestyle of those in the bar/restaurant industry. I met a local girl, Barbara, who had to been her school President and we started to date. She had been voted ‘Girl most likely to Succeed.’ Then she hooked up with me! I made many friends and got my own place with some of them. It was a sort of ‘Animal House’ I guess. Barbara and I were in love and life was wonderful and carefree that summer. We all lived our young lives to the full, on the edge you might say. It was a magical time, a wild time, and I made a lot of money while also accumulating a great resume for any bartending restaurant jobs that may come along.”

At the end of the season, Tom headed back to California with Barbara, taking all their worldly possessions with them, including many new things they had bought with their newfound wealth. “It was a killer trip, a great time, and we pulled into Los Angeles a month later on Halloween. That night our vehicle and all our possessions were stolen. We never recovered them. Everything we had was gone and we were devastated. From then on everything felt different. Barbara was particularly rocked. She was from Nantucket where such things rarely happen. The whole move was a big thing for her and this event was a huge thing for her to get over. There was now a cloud over us; it seemed that the love of my life had been shattered.”

Tom found work for a time at Sid’s Seafood Restaurant but in the spring of 1986 they left LA and moved to Ocean Beach, San Diego where Tom found work as a 5-Star waiter for which he had to take a 32-page test. “I was at Harbor House Restaurant and we lived a few blocks from the beach. I moved from there to The Tickled Trout where Barbara was a manager but then she moved to Humphrey’s. We gradually grew apart; things were never the same as that summer in Nantucket. We split up in 1987.”

That fall, Tom was heading to Denver to spend Thanksgiving with a friend when he stopped in the ski-resort of Vail, Colorado. “It had snowed all day and night and the scenery was just beautiful. I said to myself. ‘I’m going to live here’ and for two and a half years I did.” The next day Tom had a job as a bar manager at a premier establishment called The Lancelot. “Once again I threw myself into the bartending ‘lifestyle’, skiing by day, working and partying at night. I went skiing 101 days that year and being the bartender at one of the main places in town I was in the perfect position to help buddies out with ski-passes and beer. ‘Are you the Mayor here? I remember buddies saying. Partying and living large was what I did, doing all the things as a way of life that most people get to do just for a short time.”

By 1990, Tom felt it was time to move on and he left Vail. “I moved to Denver and stayed with a friend. I found bartending work at an all-black bar called the MVP Club and then became food and beverage manager at The Celebrity Sports Center, a place with bowling alley, swimming pool, and several restaurants. A few months later I moved to Denver’s #1 place, Josephina’s, which had been a well-known Denver establishment for many years, featuring live music and Italian food and any celebrities, sports figures, or actors/actresses who came into Denver would go there. I became bar manager. It was a very busy place, often five-deep at the bar, with crowds from all the Denver sports teams coming in before and after games. I always had courtside tickets for Nuggets’ games, great seats at the Red Rock auditorium for music concerts and shows, and received VIP invitations for many Denver celebrity events. I was there for seven years and met many great people in what was a vibrant and quickly developing city during those years.”

By 1997 Tom had made enough connections, saved enough money, and had gained more than enough experience to open his own place. In May of that year he opened The Stogie Club with a partner whom he bought out a year later. “It was in a restored 1914 house. We had a beautiful bar, leather furnishings, a wood-walled games room, chess, darts, cards, backgammon, and a walk-in humidor for our cigars. I lived downstairs and had my office there. I basically drank, smoked cigars, and played cards for five years. I’d smoke twenty cigars a day at one point.”

In 2000, Tom took a vacation in Costa Rica and fell in love with then place. “On my return I could not stop thinking about the possibilities in Costa Rica. Then the dentist next to The Club wanted to buy me out and we entered a contract. I had paid $91K and he was offering $265K. However, negotiations got bogged down and when he broke the contract in July 2001 we began an extended court battle. It dragged on and on for nearly a year until July 2002 during which time I had closed the club for a time. It had all gone sour and even though I eventually won a settlement and he got the Club I owed the lawyers over $100K and my Costa Rico dream was in ruins. I bought a motor home and left town.”

Tom traveled all over the States for a year, finally arriving at his brother’s home in Novato, north of the SF Bay Area in California in late 2003. “I stuck around for a time and built a nice fence for my brother. A friend of his, Jack Tuller, saw this and asked if I could do a similar thing at his property in Boonville, Anderson Valley. He told me it was an area full of good wine, weed, and beer. I moved on to his property at the north end of Boonville in early 2004 and became the handyman on his property. I planned on being here just a short time. I drank in the Buckhorn Saloon and met owner Diana Charles and bartender Todd Capuzelo. I was spending my savings so I took on extra work as handyman at The Boonville Hotel. When I arrived in Boonville I did not tell anyone about all my experiences in the bar/restaurant business. I didn’t want to do it at that time. Being a handyman was fine; I just told people I could fix things. Then I took a part-time position as bartender at The Buckhorn. Yes, as you may have gathered, my whole working life has been around bars and restaurants.”

“I liked the feel of the Valley and that people say ‘hi’ to each other on the street. I was thinking about staying a little longer and then I heard that Carroll Pratt wanted a handyman to work on his property up above Indian Creek, just south of Philo. Carroll offered me the job and a trailer to live in. I moved in and parked my motor home there too - that was in the spring of 2005. The Buckhorn closed shortly afterwards and I took a bartending job at The Boonville Lodge. The owners there, John and Candy, had expressed a desire to sell and Carroll came to me one day and said, ‘We have to keep the bar here, it feels like a duty to me. Let’s buy it.’ It was his desire to keep it here and I tried to show him the reality of running a business but we decided to take the leap and with our main motivation being to keep the Lodge going in the Valley, Carroll and I bought them out in March 2006.”

At first there was the bar with the Lumberjack Pizza attached but that did not work. “They were hardly ever open it seemed. Their lease expired in December 2006 and they were gone. I don’t think anyone missed them. We re-opened that part of the space with a classic American grill in the summer of 2007. We had issues with some people in the early days, just a handful really, but gradually everybody came on board with what we were trying to create and it has become a great place, enjoyed by many different people who live in the Valley. I am very sad to leave. This has been a passion for me and now it’s gone. I think that people appreciate what we did here and that is rewarding in itself. I hope that one day Boonville will get the bar it deserves and that our loss is not a loss to the community for any extended period of time. I plan to be here and as I said earlier, I have to have a bar to go to. There are many reasons why I am in Boonville, the biggest being my partnership with Carroll Pratt and I will stay here and hopefully do something else with him down the road.”

I asked Tom for his thoughts on the pros and cons of the Valley. “My favorite thing is the people. They are very giving and supportive, and generally open-minded. However, they can sometimes not be very accepting of change, even if that change can be good. On the one hand we have many in our community who come together and are very supportive of each other, but on the other there are those who are divisive and very negative. Perhaps they are jealous of the success of those who have achieved things by working hard. It is not just a Valley thing. It is something I see in society as a whole. Some people probably wanted me to fail; many wanted me to succeed.”

I asked Tom for his brief responses to various Valley issues.

The Wineries? “They were just the next big step in the changes that were inevitable, but there must be some regulation on how many vines can be planted here. And they must give something back to the community. Some do of course and it was good to see Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn from Navarro Winery helping out at the Senior Center Crab Feed the other evening. If people want their wineries to be here they must be prepared to contribute to our community and its way of life. Despite what some people tell us I don’t believe they all do and there are some winery owners who I never see in the Valley. That’s too bad.”

The AVA? “I like it. I didn’t read it much during the few years when it was run by David Severn. It felt like it was run by a person who didn’t want to do the job. These days I think it’s good and I like the fact that it boldly states that a newspaper should not have any friends. It’s a good read.”

The High School system? “The administration means well I’m sure but sometimes the decisions made seem to be over-reactionary instead of being clear-sighted. I speak Spanish but like my employees to speak English and encourage them to do so. It is to their benefit surely. It cannot be a one-way street and I think political correctness has gone too far on this issue particularly. The English/Spanish graduation ceremonies at the school are counter-productive. Fresh ideas are needed at the school and we all need to work together on this.”

Law and Order in the Valley? “We were lucky around here that a lot of bad things did not happen when we had only one deputy in the Valley, following Deputy Nordin’s death. We need two deputies here and we were left with one for far too long. Deputy Walker deserves huge credit for his efforts so far.”

I asked Tom who he thought should be Mayor with the power to change things for the better. “You! Steve Sparks. Who else?” (I think he was serious!)

I posed a few questions to Tom from a list devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert” Bernard Pivot, featured on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”

Favorite word or phrase? “I like to say ‘Good job’ but what I find myself saying often is ‘That’s unbelievable!’”

Least favorite word or phrase? “People saying ‘I can’t’ or even worse ‘good enough.’ It often isn’t. It too often means ‘just o.k.’ and it isn’t good enough at all.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Running an efficient team at a restaurant or bar. When everything is going smoothly and it all comes together with everyone giving their best. I just love that.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Negative attitudes.”

Sound or noise you love? “Silence. And the roaring ocean and wind blowing.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Yapping dogs.”

Favorite curse word? “I like to say ‘F*** youse, in an Italian accent for extra effect.”

Film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? “Hunter Thomson’s ‘Great Shark Hunt.’ It was a new style of journalism that was cutting-edge when it came out. The music of Tom Petty influenced me with its depiction of where I grew up: Ventura Boulevard, Mulholland Drive. The movie ‘Patton’ has always stayed with me. It showed the greatness of the man and the performance by George C Scott was incredible.”

Favorite hobby? “Golf is my main one; and cooking is my passion.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “An actor. Not necessarily in porn films. Living where I did growing up we often saw the stars and celebrities. I think I would have liked to be one at that time. The fame and fortune would have been fun — maybe.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “A lawyer. Too often it seems that principles are ignored and money is all-important. It seems a very unprincipled profession.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “When my sister Tracey was wheeled out of her successful heart transplant surgery.”

The saddest? “The day my Dad died. He was in good health but had a heart attack at 68. He was an awesome man, a very kind and generous man; well-liked by everyone.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically/mentally/spiritually? “That I am a patient person and that I try hard to be a good man. I also have a great ass and lovely eyes if any women around here would like to act on that!”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I think he’d say ‘We need to talk’ but then I’d like him to add, ‘and then we can play 18.’ That’s it? The interview is done? Oh, well, we can get to all my gun stories etc next time!” ¥¥

(To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be Jill Derwinski.)

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