Dennis Webb
GSPI News Editor

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June 15, 2003
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Tom Lubchenco: a life foreshortened

GLENWOOD SPRINGS - Tom Lubchenco was a loving father and husband, an artist who rejected a promising career in medicine to paint.

A musician. A jokester. The life of a party. An avid fly fisherman. An outspoken environmentalist.

A free spirit and Renaissance man.

This is the man an unknown assailant shot to death in the Glenwood Springs Wal-Mart a year ago this Father's Day.

The killer stole life from a lover of life, someone for whom there weren't enough hours in the day to pursue all his passions.

"He'd rattle off a list of things he was thankful for, regularly, beaming," Tom's widow, Ruth, remembers a year later.

The short walk from their Glenwood Park home to fishing in the Roaring Fork River was one. His family was another.

Watch his son Luke, 11, and his daughter Cora, 8, and you'll catch glimpses of Tom. Both play musical instruments - Cora performed on the fiddle at his funeral. She's also a budding artist.

"I liked to hang out in his art studio with him," she remembers.

Luke's an avid athlete, whom Tom had been teaching to wrestle. And he may be as passionate as his dad was about fishing.

"He fishes like Tom, just like Tom," Ruth says admiringly of her son. "When he gets in the water, he moves completely differently. It's like he's part of the water."

Ruth is struck by the similarities between Tom and his son.

"I think Luke looks just like him. He's always been a miniature Tom."

With one distinction. "I can't draw. I can't draw," Luke is quick to admit.

Luke is the man of the house now, looking after his mother and sister in the year since Tom died, as much as Ruth looks after him.

The family remains mystified by the murder.

"We really want to know what happened. The kids are going to want to know," Ruth said.

Tom was shot at about 11:30 p.m. on June 16 of last year, a Sunday, while working as a night stock clerk at Wal-Mart.

Police have named no suspect in the case. Though police aren't sharing everything they know even with Ruth, "I know a little more than I care to know right now," she said.

She is still struck by the ironies involved in the case. Tom had talked about working as a bartender to supplement his income as an artist, but she considered it too dangerous. So he took the part-time job at Wal-Mart instead.

"We just thought it was a safe job for a while," Ruth said.

The Lubchencos also had moved to what is generally a murder-free city, after having lived in the Denver area. They were both vocal supporters of gun control. Tom had lost friends to shootings.

Ruth continues to support gun control. "But it doesn't feel like much. I still feel powerless," she said.

She considers the easy availability of guns to be one of the biggest issues facing the United States. But politicians are afraid to stand up to the National Rifle Association, she said.

She watched with frustration this year when Colorado Gov. Bill Owens signed a bill making it easier to carry concealed weapons.

"Now the guy next to you in a car flips you off and just might pull a gun on you too. It's terrifying."

She said of Tom's killer, "It was just someone with a bad idea and a gun.

Guns "sure shouldn't be that easy to get," she said.

Despite Tom's background in wrestling, and Ruth's desire to believe Tom died a hero, she doubts he would have risked standing up to someone with a gun.

Luke interjected with conviction: "With other people in jeopardy, I think he would."

Whether or not he was a hero in death, Tom Lubchenco was a hero in life to many.

"Tom was a jovial person. He brought joy wherever he went. He was just like a spark plug," said his mother, Clarice June Lubchenco, who will turn 81 two days after the anniversary of her son's death.

"He had these quotes. You'd say, `Tom, it's good to see you.' And he'd say, `Well, it's good to be seen.'"

"All's well that ends" was another of his favorite lines, she said.

"He was so smart," said his mother. He taught himself banjo and guitar. He followed down a well-traveled family path toward becoming a doctor - his grandmother, Dr. Portia Lubchenco, was the first woman to graduate with a medical degree in North Carolina.

Tom studied medicine, too, winning academic honors along the way. But he also loved art. Ruth said he chose art after talking to a doctor who told him he'd never have time to pursue both.

Tom's mother said his decision to give up medicine disappointed others in his family, but not his parents.

"I had faith in Tom; I knew he knew what he was doing," she said.

He had taken no art lessons. "But we just knew that he had a goal and he was going to reach it," she added.

Another goal of Tom's was living in Glenwood. He literally dreamt about it, Ruth said, after having camped and fished in the area as a kid. When the opportunity came for Ruth to be transferred here with the Postal Service, they jumped on it.

Tom made the most of the local opportunities for painting, fishing, and sharing his love of the mountains with his family. His artwork drew increasing recognition at shows. After his death, American Artist magazine profiled him and his work in a six-page spread in the April 2003 edition.

He also was passionate about environmental issues, from light pollution - he was a backyard astronomer - to concerns over protection of roadless and wilderness areas, and backcountry snowmobile traffic. He'd occasionally pen letters to newspapers voicing his views.

His pursuits didn't leave him much time for sleep.

"He used to say, `I'll sleep when I'm dead,' when the party got late," said Ruth. And when it came down to a choice between doing dishes and talking more with guests, the dishes could wait, she said.

Luke remembers him often painting from 9:30 p.m. until 3 in the morning, then getting up to get his son off to school.

When the Coal Seam Fire hit Glenwood, Tom took his kids to see it up close, leaving Ruth to fret about their safety.

That was only eight days before his death.

Ruth has been to Wal-Mart to see where Tom was shot. The scene looks different now, after the store was remodeled. She avoids shopping at Wal-Mart, and feels management there could have showed her more compassion.

The company agreed to pay worker's compensation to the Lubchencos, but she said it was only after some "wrangling" that Wal-Mart met its legal obligation to also pay two-thirds of the family's health benefits.

Ruth believes employee security has improved a little, but she still worries that it's not what it should be. And she cares deeply for Wal-Mart employees. Workers signed a card and collected donations for Tom's family.

"It's obvious that they really liked him and they enjoyed working with him. There's definitely a lot of pain that they share," she said.

Ruth has an equally high opinion of the Glenwood community as a whole.

Friends and strangers raised $14,000 for the family through an art auction, wrote notes, visited with meals, did favors and chores. Some still check in on the family and help out to this day.

"I didn't realize how many fine people there are here in the whole valley," she said. "It's obvious people genuinely care, and they would do more if they could."

Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516

dwebb@postindependent.com


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The Post Independent Updated Jun 15, 2003 12:42AM Published Jun 15, 2003 12:42AM Copyright 2003 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.