As a journalist, I strive to be as unbiased and as unemotional as possible when reporting the news. "Stick to the facts," "show both sides," "play it down the middle," are familiar battle cries of my profession. But when it comes to people like my friend Tom Sponseller, whose mysterious disappearance and death has recently covered the pages of South Carolina newspapers, I feel so much emotion and I only know one side.
Tom was a dear man and he was special to a lot of people. He was a devoted husband and a loving father and grandfather; a supportive and loyal friend. A tireless advocate for South Carolina business and a trusted and dependable colleague. He was soft-spoken and cool; hard working and laid back; proudly Southern, but always welcoming of "outsiders."
If the phrase, "opposites attract," is true, then it certainly applies to Tom and me. In a group, we were polar opposites – he usually hanging out on the periphery of the room, occasionally dipping out to refill his drink or smoke a cigarette while I would usually position myself in the middle of the crowd, trying to entertain anyone who will pay attention to me.
Despite our differences, Tom and I really liked each other. He treated me like a daughter, one time lecturing me for taking a year to buy a car when the one I'd been driving was about to break down. He expressed interest in my career, and we often discussed news and politics. He loved to give me a hard time, teasingly asking me when I was going to quit my job and go work for Fox News, that "real news network."
He was an avid reader of this blog and often read my entries before my parents had a chance to. My dad would sometimes call me and say, "Tom just called me and said your blog had him laughing so hard he was crying. What did you write about me?" He never said so, but I got the sense that Tom was rooting for me in life, just like he rooted for his own kids.
Tom and his wife Meg and their daughter Meghan are the Sponsellers I know the best, spending many Charleston and Long Beach weekends with them. I always look forward to our time together because they're all so easy to be around. There's no drama, just good times.
Watching fellow journalists play fast and loose with facts and personal details about the life of my friend has been beyond difficult. My professional life -- wanting to know every sordid detail of the story so that I can break it down and share it with the word has collided, in the most agonizing way, with my personal life --- wanting to break down and weep for Tom's loss and challenge any speculation or negative comments about him.
The search for Tom is over, and for that, I am thankful. But he won't be returning to us like we'd hoped and I feel no closure. My heart is heavy.
I will be always be sad when I think about these difficult weeks those who love Tom have endured wondering where he was. I worry that I will always have questions about his death and his last moments here on earth - such is the case, I suppose, with seemingly senseless deaths such as his.
I find myself trapped between wishing that there was, or is, something more that I could do to have prevented this end and understanding that I have to accept this very difficult reality. I wake up thinking, "This can't be my life." There is no way that such an awful tragedy could happen to the people that I love. And there are still so many things that remain a mystery.
But as the upsetting and downright awful commentary plays out in the papers and on the local news, I will do my very best to remember Tom not for the way his life ended, but for the way he lived it -- with integrity, kindness, and the profound recognition that the most important things in life aren't things at all. It's the memories you make, the experiences and laughs you share with the people you care about that really matter.
Good books, good restaurants, and the iPhone Fat Booth app are good too. At least Tom would say so.
I am so lucky to have made so many memories surrounded by you, Tom, and your beautiful family; we have certainly shared quite a few laughs and many delicious meals. I sure wish we had time for a few more.
Rest in Peace, Papa Tom.