Tom Cox died in February of this year. On Friday, July 12, 2019 a group of his closest friends gathered at College of the Atlantic to celebrate his life. I was honored to have the opportunity to speak about Tom during that service. These were my words on that afternoon.
The first piece of mail I received upon arriving here as COA’s new president wasn’t a bill, it wasn’t a change-of-address memo or some other communique from the postal service; it was a moth orchid, Phalaenopsis amabilis. It was Tom’s welcome to me and my family; it continues to flower and to scent our washroom and to multiply its spider-like roots in a desperate search for its native Sumatran soils. It continues to be my memory of this man we all loved so dearly and are here to celebrate.
My personal experience with Tom and his philanthropy began with that orchid. It can never represent the magnitude, the diversity, and the outpouring of love that was Tom’s giving—to COA, to Friends of Acadia, to MCHT, the MDI Hospital and all the other institutions he loved here on MDI, to say nothing of what he supported throughout the world. But I suspect there’s an orchid analog between Tom and each and every one of those institutions, people, and ideas.
Tom’s second gift to me was Plutarch’s essay, “On Listening.” I kind of breezed through it when he gave it to me eight years ago, but I’ve read it three times prepping for this talk and cannot shake one paragraph where Plutarch, speaking with his pupil Nicander about the dance that must occur between listener and speaker, says,
“… it is important (to) peel off any excess in style—we ought (not) to behave like garland weavers (who) pick blossom-laden plants, and plait and weave them into something pleasant but barren,” (we must) consider flowery, showy language to be the ‘fodder of the drones.’”
I’ll always wonder if Tom thought my orchid-heavy opening paragraph is too flowery. But I know now that, in gifting Plutarch, Tom gave me the gift of self-reflection; it may have taken eight years, but Tom, I promise it has finally gotten through! I promise to be a better listener and practice self-reflection! As with Sam, as with Nadia, as with so many of us here, Tom gave the gift of mentorship and, in so doing, he gave the gift of patience, of listening, and of a promise for a refined intellect. Mentoring sessions with Tom were Swedish massages for the brain and facials for the self.
And Tom gave time, such glorious time! For me and for so many of us, he gave time at Moss Haven. I had to maneuver my truck as delicately as possible across the crushed stones, knowing a small slip in the clutch would send a spray of pink granite buckshot through the windows and into the frog pond. Parked without incident, Tom and I would pause in the entryway and meditate on Richard’s print, D-train, cruising across the East River from Brooklyn to downtown, silent and empty. About a month after Tom’s death I ran across southern Manhattan, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, and returned via the Manhattan Bridge. I stopped at what I thought was a random hole in the fence and snapped a quick shot on my iPhone—it turned out to be the exact view of Richard’s D-train, like the orchid and Plutarch’s lessons, Tom’s caring and presence will be with us forever.
After the D-train meditation, Tom would hold court on his couches, he on the north, me on the south, with Buddha watching intently just to our West. Newspaper clippings, books, hand-written notes, yellowing, type-written pages in monospaced typeface, finely cut carrots, and cucumber sandwiches with no crust. These were the accoutrements of our meetings, Tom as sensei, me as grasshopper. Tom gave time imbued with the quality and attention few other human beings could ever muster. In a world of distraction, he gave focused time.
And after the mentorship, there was the gift of joy, the celebration of a session brought to a close by a vodka martini. Let’s be honest—it was a glass of unadulterated, very cold vodka. Even in his last year he would shake that vodka so hard I thought he might lose his balance. Tom enjoyed life with the vigor of that shaken drink. His smile and laugh drifting from his deck will linger forever in the spruce forests between Moss Haven and Little Long Pond.
When we wander down to the Turrets Great Hall I will most certainly make a silent toast to Tom with my glass of cold vodka for his great philanthropy. But here, now and publicly, I’d like to toast Tom by announcing that, to honor his life, his love for this island, and for his appreciation of beauty, College of the Atlantic is creating the Thomas A. Cox Chair in Painting and Drawing. We’re very excited about it. Thank you, Tom. We miss you terribly. Cheers.