Remembering Tom Thomas, Upland’s cycling councilman – San Bernardino Sun

Tom Thomas took up cycling in his mid-30s after his jogger’s knees begged for mercy. A former football player in high school and college, he bought a bike at a garage sale, hedging his bets in case he didn’t like cycling.

But he did. When I met him in 1997, he had logged 22,498 miles in his eight years and rode up to three times a week, usually for 90 minutes at a time. He would go on longer rides, visiting his college-student daughters in Orange and Eagle Rock.

He’d even bike to visit his wife’s parents in Hemet, a 3 1/2-hour ride. That is a lot of effort to expend to see your in-laws.

As a councilman, Tom advocated for bike lanes on city streets and for what became the Pacific Electric Trail, the 21-mile bike route from Rialto to Claremont, with the Upland segment opening first. He helped found the Tour de Foothills, an annual bike ride in Upland, in 2005. And years later, he was still riding.

He was on his bike when he was killed.

Riding south on Monte Vista Avenue, Tom, 68, was in the left-hand turn lane for Richton Street in Montclair when a motorcyclist slammed into him from behind. That was Feb. 24. He died in the hospital from internal injuries two days later.

It’s a loss for his family and friends, as well as for Upland, and a shocking way to go. He is believed to be San Bernardino County’s first bicycle fatality of 2022.

I feel the loss too. Tom was among the first people I met in this job.

I started here on March 10, 1997, 25 years ago next week. In mid-April that year, newly assigned as our Upland reporter, I attended my first City Council meeting. Tom, elected in 1990 and re-elected in ’94, was one of the five council members.

He mentioned during that meeting that he’d be riding soon in a 100-mile fundraiser for cancer. That would be about 6 1/2 hours on a bike. Intrigued, I introduced myself afterward. A day or two later we were chatting at his dining room table about his cycling habit.

Tom Thomas, 68, a former city councilman in Upland, died Feb. 26, two days after being struck while riding his bike. He rode 60 to 100 miles per week. (Courtesy Ann Thomas)

I dug out the story this week from my files.

“It’s a lot of fun. It makes me feel like a kid,” Tom, then 43, told me. “It’s a great way to keep in shape.” He also practiced yoga, hiked, walked and lifted weights.

His wife, Ann, joked: “He keeps in shape for the entire family.”

Two paragraphs were tough to reread. I’ll simply reprint them.

“Riding defensively is his approach and expecting the worst his philosophy when biking on city streets. Clueless motorists frequently make turns across the path of bike riders or nearly knock them over when zooming by.

“In 1990, Thomas was hit by a car that turned in front of him as he cruised downhill at 30 mph. He broke an ankle, dislocated his hip and was sworn into office on crutches.”

In his 20 years as a councilman, he advocated for the skate park at Memorial Park, the former Carnegie Library building and the Grove Theatre and on water matters. He served five terms before losing the election in 2010.

That may have been for the best.

An insurance broker and Presbyterian elder, Tom was from the classic mold of middle-of-the-road elected officials who are by nature less suited to today’s rougher politics, name-calling and social media tirades. Especially in Upland, where the council chambers might qualify as a toxic work environment.

The former Nebraskan was one of the region’s least-exciting public officials. (The Inland Empire could use more unexciting public officials.) But he was a steady hand on the tiller, and he was reliable: He missed only three meetings in 20 years.

At his council farewell, I finally asked him about his double name. Was his birth name really Tom Thomas? “No, it’s Thomas Thomas,” he said, whipping out his driver license to prove it. He explained: “I was the fourth kid and they’d used up the good names.”

While nobody can serve for 20 years without making a few enemies, most people liked him. I did. If we were in the same room, we’d always say hello.

Ann is overwhelmed by calls, messages and visits — “he was so loved,” she tells me by phone Wednesday — and is getting through with the help of their daughters. A memorial service is under discussion, perhaps for late April.

I ask her about Tom’s bike riding. He’d head out Tuesday, Thursday and either Saturday or Sunday for 20 to 35 miles at a time. The 6-foot-1 senior was, enviably, at his college weight of 210. And he took every precaution on the road.

“This man was the safest cyclist you could have,” Ann says. “He wore the neon yellow windbreaker. If it was even dusk, he would turn on his lights, front and back. He always wore a helmet. He would curse people who didn’t wear one. He broke three helmets over the years” — starting with that 1990 accident.

Did she worry when he headed out? Always.

“The last thing I would say was, ‘I love you, Tom, be safe.’ He loved it so much, I didn’t let him know how much I worried.”

If he phoned her while on a ride, she immediately asked if he was fine, and he would immediately say yes, that he had stopped for water or a snack or just had something to tell her.

This time, though, when he phoned, and she asked if he was fine, he replied: “No.” He asked her to come get his bike. When she arrived, he was sitting up in the street, surrounded by first responders. He couldn’t stand.

“I heard a roar,” he told her, “and all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe.” That was due to his broken ribs. He was transported to the hospital.

“He loved the city of Upland so much and would do anything for it,” Ann says. Naming all or part of the bike trail for him as a continuing memorial is one possibility.

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