Thursday, March 04, 2010

Thomas C. Hobbs: 1949-2010

The joy Tom Hobbs found in research was never more evident than in the historic dimensions he compiled, presented, wrote scholarly papers on and discussed on panels before an international audience of obituary writers.

As a reference librarian at the University of South Carolina Aiken, he made outstanding contributions to his academic and civic communities, all detailed in his curriculum vitae:

“The man was smart, accurate and terrifically helpful, a librarian to the core,” said Marilyn Johnson, author of “This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All” and “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries.” “When I told him I was writing about obituaries, he made sure that I knew about The Gentleman's Magazine and offered to help any way he could.”

Nigel Starck, a University of South Australia educator, remembers the help Tom gave him while he was conducting research in the United States for his book, “Life After Death.”

“I do have some notably warm feelings about Tommy – especially as he went to the Aiken bus stop at 12:30 a.m. to meet me off the Greyhound in 2002,” Starck said. (See more from Starck in the comments that follow this obituary.)

Thomas Cooper Hobbs, 61, died in his sleep of a heart attack at 11 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010, according to the Aiken County (S.C.) coroner. His body was discovered the next day by concerned friends from the university, who went to his home in North Augusta, S.C., to check on him after he hadn’t shown up for work.

Tom’s funeral will be held Saturday, March 6, 2010, beginning with visitation at 11 a.m. and followed by services at noon, at the Lane Funeral Home (Coulter Chapel), 601 Ashland Terrace, Chattanooga, Tenn.

A memorial service will be incorporated into the Palmetto Friends Gathering, which begins at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, March 7, 2010, at the Lexington YMCA, 401 YMCA Road, Lexington, S.C.

Burial will take place at noon Monday, March 9, 2010, when Tom’s body will be laid to rest next to his father, Noble Hobbs, at the Davidson Memorial Gardens, U.S. 23, Ivel, Ky.

Tom, the only child of Noble and Kathryn Hobbs, was born Jan. 6, 1949, in Chattanooga. Kathryn had worked at the American Lava plant in Chattanooga. Noble, who represented coal mining firms, worked in Kentucky.

Kathryn was around 39 years old, when Tom was born. Giving birth at that age carried many dangers for mother and child in those days.

“Because of her age, she wanted a doctor and a hospital she knew,” said Tom’s cousin Mary Anne McGrew. So Kathryn left Kentucky and returned to her hometown of Chattanooga for Tom’s birth. “She felt more comfortable here.”

Baby Tom and his mother soon joined his father in Pikeville, Ky.

Tom graduated from Pikeville High School in 1967. His father died the following year at age 65.

Tom’s mother, age 100, now lives at a Chattanooga retirement community. Tom, who never married, also is survived by five cousins.

Tom earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1971 and a master’s degree in library science in 1972 from the University of Kentucky. He continued his education throughout his life, taking college courses, attending seminars and brainstorming with scholars and other professionals to master computer, research and organizational skills.

His career began at Louisiana State University at Eunice. Tom worked at Prestonburg (Ky.) Community College and Cleveland (Tenn.) State Community College before joining the staff at USCA in 1986.

USCA officials will likely make and announce a decision on how to recognize Tom’s life and contributions to the university after Spring Break.

Tom’s interest in obituaries as a research tool led him to attend many obit-centered gatherings. Last year, he became an associate member of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers (SPOW).

He endeared himself to obituary writers, educators, researchers and aficionados who attended the first SPOW Convention in 2009 and nine Great Obituary Writers Conferences before that. The latter confabs were hosted by Carolyn Gilbert, founder of what became known as the International Association of Obituarists (IAO).

“I think Tom created that word ‘obituarists’ or came across it in his research,” said award-winning obituary writer Kay Powell, who met Tom at an obits conference.

“I was in line for supper,” Powell recalled. “A man behind me started talking to me about the obit for a bowlegged ballet teacher that I had written for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I turned to him in amazement, and Tom introduced himself. Years earlier, he had been looking for feature style obits to archive at USC Aiken and discovered the pieces I wrote for the AJC. He quoted entire paragraphs from obits I didn’t even remember writing.

“Nearly 15 years ago, Tom gave me a sobriquet which people quote to this day. When ATLANTA magazine profiled me and the new feature style obits of the AJC, the writer interviewed Tom, who dubbed me ‘doyenne of the death beat.’”

The quiet librarian made his humorous remarks without flourish, as if he were talking about the weather. His matter-of-fact delivery made his comments all the more hilarious.

Larken Bradley, who writes obituaries for the West Marin Citizen in Point Reyes Station, Calif., reports, “My favorite Tom moment was in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel (in Las Vegas, N.M.) when I sat down on the couch next to the big stuffed gorilla. Tom sat in a chair across from me, and I gestured to the gorilla and said, ‘Have you met my sister Bernice?’

“After a beat Tom said, ‘If she's single, maybe I'll ask her out.’”

Carolyn Gilbert, IAO conference host, said, “The last time I saw Tommy was at the 10th Great Obituary Writers' Conference. As always, he was so pleased to see old friends and to make the acquaintance of new obituarists who attended.

"I remember presenting him with an enlargement of a photograph made at his first conference back in Jefferson, Texas, in 2000. It was an image of a smiling Tom with the Grim Reaper -- a surprise guest at the end of the conference.”

His many fans -- among obit writers and people who just love to read and collect obits -- were drawn to him not only for his scholarly research but for his kind and thoughtful nature. In an effort not to offend anyone, Tom, who was a Quaker, seemed to carefully consider his words when controversial topics entered the conversation.

He once said, “I get lots of practice in giving the appearance of impartiality as part of my work in the library. It’s my job to guide people to the information they seek, regardless of my opinion of the purpose they have in mind for it. The students and faculty would not trust me, if I were known as an opinionated crank. I don’t even do bumper stickers and lapel buttons during election season for that reason.”

Tom published “A Librarian Looks at the Obituaries” in Grassroots Editor in 2001 and presented a peer review paper on “The Obituary: A Dying Art Turned Lively Again” to library associations.

“He wanted to know everything about historical and cutting-edge obits,” said Alana Baranick, SPOW director. “In the last couple of years, he dug into the development of obits in newspapers that serve the African-American community.”

While Tom could cite examples from literature about innovative ways to use obituaries in a teaching environment, he also became a student of online multimedia presentations of obits.

Incorporating text, photos, Internet links, video and audio into obits went hand-in-hand with what Tom called “a notion that has been jelling inside my little brain that obits now have enhanced value as an educational tool, not only as an information resource.”

The result: He co-founded the Obituaries in Education Interest Group.”

At IAO conferences, Tom presented his research on “Obituaries as a Mirror on Society: What the Research Shows” and on “Sylvanus Urban, Obituarist Extraordinaire: The Gentleman’s Magazine and the Life and Times of John Nichols.”

“I was stunned to hear that he had come near death the last time people gathered in Las Vegas, N.M., (for the last IAO conference in 2008) that a group had gone with him in the ambulance and kept watch over him through the night,” Johnson said.

“It feels right that people are gathering again, from all corners of the world, to pay tribute to a gentle man and a gentleman who brought a scholarly presence to that lark of the conference.”

Tom had been planning to attend the SPOW Convention in Philadelphia at the end of April 2010.

His cousin added, “He loved his part in that and loved to get with you all.”

This obituary was prepared by Tom Hobbs’ friends with help from his family. Please click “Comments” below, if you have Tom Hobbs stories or comments to share.


Alana Baranick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alana Baranick said...

Here's the link to the obit for "Tommy Hobbs" that his family placed in the Chattanooga Times Free Press:

Robert Botsch, USCA Political Science said...

I worked with Tom many years in the American Association of University Professors at USC Aiken. Tom was our link to the state AAUP. His efforts over many years let the state know what we were doing, and he let us know what they were doing. He always came back from state meetings with good ideas. It was one of the many thankless tasks in the life of any organization that are so necessary for an organization to exist and be effective. He did it well without any pressure. Tom did it because he felt it important as part of the necessary constant vigilance to protect academic freedom and to maintain a strong faculty role in self-governance and ensure that faculty have due process protectons in academic policies. He was always supportive and offered excellent advice when we had differences with the administration. Few people know how important a role Tom played in his own quiet way. He will be sorely missed. But he did all anyone can ever ask -- he kept us going while he was with us. Now it is up to us to carry on as best we can. Thank-you, Tom Hobbs. Your efforts will help many in the college teaching profession who will never know your name.

Robert E. Botsch
President, USC Aiken AAUP

Alana Baranick said...

Nigel Starck sent the following to be posted as a comment on Tom's obituary.


Tom Hobbs had a passion for obituary – and shared the fruits of this collection, with his innate generosity, when I was researching the topic for my doctorate.

Go to the University of South Carolina and see Tom, I was told: you’ll find a rich storehouse of obituaries and just about everything that’s been written about the art.

His home campus in the attractive township of Aiken – with its Norman Rockwell main street – was a long way from mine in South Australia. That 2002 trip demanded a flight to London (with research at the British Library), another to Atlanta, and then a Greyhound link to upstate South Carolina. Tommy was there, at 12.30am, to meet me off ‘the dog’ and see me to the nearest Days Inn.

For the next three days, I plundered his personal archives, enriching the literature review of my dissertation and growing to respect both his knowledge and his character. He was a man of scrupulous ethical standards: he would use the office phone only for calls of strictly university business, he made sure that I paid cash for my photocopying (rather than slip anything through on his staff card), and – regardless of my impatience to escape for a late afternoon beer – stuck resolutely to his desk until 5pm.

When we did get to Aiken’s Belgian beer cafĂ©, and sat in the May sunshine over a Stella Artois, his caution came to the fore again. Tommy sipped a single pint while I, the incautious and itinerant Australian, sank three.

His love of the obituary was directed especially towards The Gentleman’s Magazine, the elegant British miscellany of 1731 vintage that shifted our craft from hagiography towards a more objective appraisal of a life lived. Tom, a profoundly good man, was intrigued by its capacity for recording the histories of villains.

Through his sustained reading of this journal, he delivered an authoritative International Association of Obituarists’ conference paper describing the magazine’s achievements in that regard.

That conference, held five years ago in Bath, gave Tom the chance to visit Britain for the first time. Again, his natural caution came into play: in emails to Tim Bullamore (the Bath-based organiser), he asked whether taxi drivers would take US dollars, was it safe to drink the water out of the taps, and if that ancient city had the right sort of electricity to power his shaver.

In Aiken, I bought myself a ‘South Carolina – the Palmetto State’ t-shirt. I’ll pull it on tonight and have a beer in Tommy’s memory. Maybe I’ll have three.

- Nigel Starck (Australia)

Alana Baranick said...

Here's the link to a beautifully written article that appears under "opinion" in the March 5, 2010, Aiken Standard:

The author's name is not given, but the piece bears the distinct fingerprints of Carolyn Gilbert.

hyfler/rosner said...

I first met Tom at the Obit Writer's Conference in Las Vegas, NM. He seemed shy, but he jumped at the opportunity to join me, my husband and Cathy Dunphy as we searched for the Carnegie building at the nearby university. It was nighttime, we were stopped by two security guards who couldn't believe we were searching for a library building in the dark. Once we had established our innocence, (all you had to do was look at us) they took US on a tour of the University, opening buildings, showing us hidden places. We even discussed politics. It was quite the adventure, and Tom loved it, as we all did. I saw him again at several other conferences, and it was always a pleasure to chat with him. Mind you, he could never figure out how to get to alt.obituaries, but that just made him completely normal!

Now I wish I had gotten to know him even better.


Alana Baranick said...

From March 11, 2010, edition of Obit magazine:

Alana said...

The following came from Tom's girlfriend from college, Maggie Bunch:

Many of us kids that graduated from Prestonburg Community College went to University of Kentucky and rented apartments close together so all of us mountain kids could stick together.

For many of us, including me, it was our first time ever being away from the comforts we felt in the mountains.

Tommy did not live in an apartment because his dad had just died, so he and his mom bought a house so he could be with her. He always cared so much for his mom.

Tommy and I were very much in love but he wanted to wait till he had his doctorate, and he knew I wanted what at that time he couldn't give. He called it "a little house with a white picket fence and kids inside."

I wanted what was best for him, and he wanted what was best for me. So we parted.

We have from time to time talked and tried to stay connected, but it wasn't till I became friends with Steve, one of our mountain friends, that Tommy and I became friends on Facebook.

Tommy was one of the nicest, sweetest people I have ever known. He was so smart, but he never made anyone feel less than he was.

Many dates were spent with him reading poems to me and even better reading the ones he wrote.

We would ride around in his little tan Camaro car that he was so proud of for hours on end.

I remember one time us riding on Versailles Road in Lexington, Ky., and I thought a plane was going to hit us. Tommy just laughed and laughed. He knew the airport was near, but I didn't.

The sky has lost one of its stars, and I have lost one of my best and dearest friends.

fyi: You can find Maggie on FB.

Alana Baranick said...

Nigel Starck's obit for Tom that appeared in The Guardian of London on March 22, 2010:

Jason said...

I was browsing around to learn more about the USC Aiken job and was shocked to see that the original holder of this position passed away suddenly. I would like to wish USCA well in this time of loss. It sounds like the librarian who goes on to take this position will have huge shoes to fill.