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Jerry Budrick
05/30/2014 3:40 PM

By Brent Parsons

ledger dispatch columnist

Amador is a small county with a bumper crop of interview candidates. If I’m up to it and subjects are willing, this series could go for a while. I’m entering camping season, which limits my time at home for both interviewing and writing. I’m expanding my technical arsenal with a laptop to facilitate campsite composition. It is another step down a path I, and those that know me, never thought I would be on. Hopefully, my back page absences will be few. We are heading to the desert for two weeks.

Within the life stories are the roads that led the subject here. Most had a past somewhere else and the circumstances or people that drew them to Amador are fascinating. Familiar names thread journeys, like Phil Giurlani, in Jerry’s, and David Carlson, in Katherine’s. (She was afraid he was going to get an earful for finding her a home) and Stan Lukowitz, in several. Speaking of Jerry Budrick, I just spotted his old flame and partner, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, on Time’s 100 most influential people of the year, at number 69. I don’t know whether to congratulate or console him.

Tom Blackman is familiar as the owner of Amador’s largest realty; Coldwell Banker. He was the local face of the Jackson Hills residential and golf course proposal that was withdrawn after the economy began to tank and before a referendum challenging its approval. I knew a little about him, but not much. I called and asked to meet. He thought himself not that interesting of a story, but I knew he was.

Tom was a childhood movie star. I had heard about a Mickey Mouse Club connection, but nothing else. He told me how it happened. “My sister and I were walking with my grandmother in the vicinity of Hollywood and Vine one morning in 1955,” said Tom. “A man approached and began asking me some questions.” (Those were the days of innocence, when a strange man could question a lad and the lad could ask for candy). “The man inquired if I could sing, dance or had ever acted,” he recalled. (Call the police) “I answered, no, no, and no. The scout was pleased with my five years’ worth of inexperience and asked me and my grandmother if I could meet with a man big in the entertainment business, named Walt Disney. I was hired and rode next to Walt on the Milk Wagon in the parade that opened Disneyland. I continued to participate in the parade and also had a part in ‘Mickey’s Circus,’ which was a show that evolved into the Mickey Mouse Club. I wasn’t a regular, but was a guest periodically on a segment called ‘The Roundup,’ when kids joined the club for a show.”

I asked if he knew why the talent scout chose him. “I’m not sure,” he replied. “I had fairly long blonde hair and I must have looked wholesome and innocent.”

Tom went on to have a five-year career in Hollywood. He was on a few episodes of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. He had a bit part in Pollyanna and was the star, along with a chimpanzee, in the feature film, “Half Pint,” which toured the world with Pollyanna. He lost a potential role as Jimmy Stewart’s son in Red Rider because his grandmother shaved off his golden locks just prior to shooting. Dad wasn’t too keen on Tommy’s movie career and a move at age 10 to the isolated desert town of Mojave (his dad was a navy test pilot at China Lake) ended what might have been. Tom’s fondest memory of those glamorous days is of sitting between Red Buttons and John Wayne in a booth at the original Brown Derby.

Tom loved the rural life, and he and his father hunted and fished in the rugged Inyo Mountains often. Tom was 15 on a pheasant hunt when their jeep hit a patch of ice and slid off a mountain road and down a hillside. Tom crawled up to his dad, who died in his arms. He paused and seemed lost in the memory for a moment before telling me how much he missed his dad. I asked what injuries Tom incurred. “I was pretty fortunate,” he said. “At the hospital, the doctor said my lasting physical scar would be a missing chunk of ear. I reached into my pocket and handed it to him. He sewed it on and it is still there.”

After losing his dad, Tom moved back to Orange County, where he finished high school and attended Fullerton State, He married his high school sweetheart at age 20 and they separated “peacefully” a year later. Tom escaped the city to work on the Alaskan pipeline and she went on to be a lawyer for the Padres. Ketchikan proved to be too much of an escape — “There was a critical girl shortage” — and Tom returned to the rugged Kern River country he explored as a kid with his dad. He got a job as a bartender while he waited to get on with the lumber mill, which was the reason for the small town of Johnsondale. He got in contact with another high school sweetheart and she came to visit. After 38 years, Connie and Tom are still together.

Tom was hired by the mill and worked his way through a variety of equipment operating jobs until he reached what he considered the best on site, unloading supervisor. He credits the spotted owl for closing down the mill in his ninth year. He was offered a transfer to another Bendix plant, in Martell. He had six months to kill before the new job started.

Rather than waiting, he bought into an Oregon plywood factory with a cousin and brother-in-law and moved. Five years of rain convinced him and Connie that they were California people. He sold his share and they moved back, hoping to work in Martell. A new part of the hiring process was a complete physical. Tom felt good, but x-rays revealed some dissolving discs. He blames his years on the cat. He searched for a job and became a heavy equipment operator with Frank Briski. He learned grading, wells and septics and witnessed development. To “get his feet wet,” he bought a 40-acre piece off Quartz Mountain and divided it into four. He sold them and made money much more quickly than he could “pushing dirt around.” “You have the personality for real estate,” said Connie. “You make people comfortable. You could be good.” He had $10,000 and a pickup in 1986 when he arrived in Amador. He says he peaked out at about $5,000,000 before the crash and Jackson Hills took him down. “I’m now closer to where I started,” he revealed. He seemed happy and optimistic, like a good realtor has to be.

Tom talked a lot about his daughters. Sally and Sara are an important part of his life and he was an important part of their births. He delivered them. Connie went into labor in Johnsondale, three hours on a curvy road from the Bakersfield hospital. They got there, but Sara beat the doctor out on a gurney. Tom was the midwife. The scenario was repeated in Portland, when Tom’s hands were the first to welcome Sally. “Connie delivered quickly,” Tom understated. Tom connects his two girls entering this world in his hands to his dad leaving it in his arms. “Life evens out,” he said.

Sara “expertly” manages the Jackson office and Sally has quite a story. She was educated in London as a graphic artist. She worked for an L.A. firm and had just completed an award-winning Bosch ad display in Times Square when she began losing color perception. She quickly went from color blind to blind with a rare affliction and moved back home at 26. “She is an incredible girl,” Tom attested. “She studied and became a licensed massage therapist, married Justin and is expecting her second child any day.” He said that a dim bit of peripheral vision has returned, but the prognosis is not good.

Tom got a real estate license, learning the ropes under Ray Dommer, at Forestland Realty. He bought a Coldwell Banker franchise in 1988 and opened on Main Street, in Jackson. His presence in Amador increased over time with the addition of offices in Pioneer, Ione and Sutter Creek. “We have been the county’s No. 1 producer since day one,” he noted.In the boom years, Tom did quite well, developing a few subdivisions, including Jackson Pines and Old Mine Estates. He lived through several cycles, but the crash in 2008 dwarfed any previous downturn. “For three years, everyone was afraid to do anything except try to identify the bottom, and it kept sinking,” he recalled. Tom exhausted his savings trying to keep afloat, as his Jackson Hills project died. He believes that the county, and especially Jackson, lost an opportunity.

“We had a new sewer plant and golf course front-loaded in the approved plan,” he explained. “The location was good and 500 homes over 10 years would have been absorbed fairly painlessly. Businesses would have benefited. CALPERS was in for $52 million, until the process bogged down and investment conditions soured. When they pulled out, it was over.”

I asked how much the attempt cost him. “We invested about $10 million into the proposal,” he answered. “I ended up personally losing about a fifth of that.” He seemed surprisingly not bitter and I asked him if he was. “No, not really,” he said. “I respect the other perspectives. We all live here together. I like people and it drives me crazy if I feel that someone, especially a neighbor, doesn’t like me.” He does seem like a hard guy not to like.

“Timing is everything and we laid the groundwork,” he continued. “Maybe the next guy will get in.”

I asked if the next guy might be him. “No, you can only go all in and lose once,” he lamented. I guess that is what the phrase means.

Tom is active in many civic and professional organizations and has chaired and been honored by most. He is the current president of the Chamber of Commerce and has been selected as the Lions, Businessman and Realtor of the Year. He created the county’s film commission a dozen years ago and runs it on a slim budget practically by himself. The commission has been instrumental in bringing several major productions and many commercials to Amador by promoting the area’s attributes. As the local liaison, he handles permits, lodging, property access and catering in an effort to bring in spending and keep it local.

I didn’t ask if anyone from the industry has ever made the connection between Tom and the little boy on the poster with the chimp from so long ago. It wouldn’t be easy.

Copyright © 2014 Amador Ledger Dispatch
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