Death of a World Citizen
Like many in Chesapeake Country, we at Bay Weekly were deeply saddened by the passing this week of Tom Abercrombie, wise man, adventurer and world-class citizen.
His death is a loss that will be felt far beyond Maryland. Seldom has such a gracious, learned and humorous person called our region home. Never have we known such a character.
With an impish grin and a witty remark or two, Tom would tell us we were nuts for writing such stuff. But anyone who knew him would agree.
Whether building his sailboat at home along the West River, carrying on at the Old Philosophers’ Club at Shannon’s in Shady Side on Friday afternoons or counseling the uninitiated of Washington on the intricacies of Middle Eastern culture, Tom embraced life with joy.
He had a 40-year career as a reporter/photographer for National Geographic, traveling to 80 countries before he retired in the mid-1990s. It was the era of rich and expansive journalism, before the bean-counters and graphics-mongers diminished the profession, and Tom would devote months to delivering stories from mysterious lands.
He was the first journalist to travel to the South Pole. Tom and his wife, Lynn, a photographer and co-adventurer, were the first in the news business to be granted free rein in what is now southern Yemen, a Marxist state back then.
Tom once told us that the most influential book in his life was his third-grade geography book, and we came to understand why. Name a hot spot in the world, and Tom had been there, probably several times.
His was a participatory brand of journalism. In Afghanistan, he became a player in buz kashi, a wild game of fighting for a goat carcass while astride a kicking, biting horse.
How, we asked him, did such a diminutive sort fall in with this hard crowd? Well, he responded, when the horse bit a player’s ear off, he happened to be on hand.
“I had damn near a hospital: this huge fishing tackle box full of morphine and sharpened scalpels. So I fixed this guy’s ear up and made him feel a little better,” he recalled in a Bay Weekly interview in 1998.
He knew Iraq intimately and was deeply troubled over both the fate of the Iraqi people in this war and the ignorance of many Americans about the Middle East.
Tom was a rascal of sorts, one of the many reasons he was beloved. During a visit of a contingent from Beirut to his West River home, Tom surprised folks when he went outside to fire off a few rounds from his pistol.
When asked what he was up to, Tom replied, “Just trying to make these people feel at home.”
When word arrived that Tom, 75, had succumbed after seemingly successful heart surgery, we didn’t believe it at first.
After all, he’d walked away from plane crashes (he was a pilot, too). He thought he was a goner long ago in China from typhoid, which had turned his body stiff and blue. (He would have died had he not been arrested by the Chinese Army, which forced him to make a run for Nepal, where he found the Canadian clinic that saved him.)
We mourn for Lynn and for Tom’s family and many friends, who’ll no longer be hearing his stories.
As one of those friends put it this morning, Tom was an icon, one of the truly great spirits, and his departure leaves a huge vacuum in our midst.
Read the BayWeekly interview with Tom at http://www.bayweekly.com/old-site/year98/lead6_7.html