There are people who pass through our lives, whether briefly or spanning a number of years, who cause us to pause, to listen, to remember, and ultimately to try to be better people. Dr. Tom (“Tommy”) Russell is one of those people.
In the rugged backcountry of Southern California’s Sespe Wilderness - the place that the National Park Service takes “bears for relocation” because these rugged sycamore and chemise canyons are remote and vast in area - sits a small rock cabin without a front door. The doorway remains open, a hand-polished hearth directly across the floor one could easily imagine Will Rogers sitting beside, welcoming the hiker, the equestrian or mountain biker needing a roof over their head for the night. Like all places in California’s outdoors, the unique blend of light, aromas, color, breeze and textures gives a person the feeling of being in their body, being at home.
Outside the door of this sturdy stone dwelling, known as ‘Patton’s Cabin’, amidst the huge white boulders emblematic of this part of the transverse range of coastal California, stand several hitching posts that have been used by young people since the early 1900’s. This cabin provided sanctuary in a particularly hard, sustained winter rain in 1989 to a small group of teen hikers that I was leading on a weeklong backpack trip from a high school from over the ridge in Ventura County’s Ojai Valley. It’s here 30 years earlier that Tom Russell as a lanky teen from San Francisco took care of a horse – as all students at the Thacher School are required to do – and it in turn clearly took care of him. As Tom’s wife Nona related recently to me, the founder of Thacher School no doubt would have said, "There was something about the outside of a horse that was good for the inside of Tom Russell."
Tom went on to work a dude ranch in the summer in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley as a 15 year-old, returning the following year as head wrangler. An axiom to those in outdoor education – arguably to anyone involved with youth and who trusts in the development of beings when allowed to be in nature – is that time spent outdoors can and does inspire youth in developing courage, leadership, compassion and focus. This kid had focus.
On the surface, Tommy was a highly successful Doctor of regional and national importance, the Executive Director of the American College of Surgeons, a flight surgeon serving in Vietnam and a man in his 70’s who stood ramrod straight and beamed a warm smile. Tom’s motto, "Take the stairs, be nice to the janitor, and the patient comes first" was abundantly clear to me not just as a well-intended credo from a gentleman, but as an ethos to live by when I was fortunate to visit with him over the past six years. Tom was - and remains – a cherished uncle to dear friends of ours from Healdsburg that have shared with my family numerous occasions to be part of their family, over harvest meals outdoors, camping in orchards in the Anderson Valley and at events in support of clean food, progressive candidates and human rights. On these occasions Tommy, seemingly without effort, eschewed his significant accomplishments in medicine and his public stature. Without grandchildren of his own, Tommy seemed to truly delight in the attention our daughter heaped on him and his beloved Border collie, Speedy. On one occasion, Speedy got startled with all the activity at a party and gave our daughter, Iris, enough of a nip to draw a little blood. Tom was horrified by this, but Iris soon after – in an email exchange – took to allaying his remorse.
"dear speedy, I wish that I could see you soon. It's okay that you got a little cited - I get cited too. P.s., what I do when I'm cited is I go into a different room, and I make sure my teeth stay together. I hope you have fun and I'll see you soon. From Iris"
After a battle with a particularly lethal form of cancer, Tom passed away from us peacefully at his ranch in Philo earlier this month, in the very spot on earth that in part sculpted his life. Dr. Russell had been able, you see, to buy up – and preserve in its beautiful California cowboy rusticity, wildness and beauty – a ranch overlooking ridge upon ridge of bear and lion, owl and warbler, salmon and madrone comprising the drainages feeding the Navarro River and a number of unnamed tributaries. His years at Thacher School – in the dining room where his name still adorns the wall as ‘outstanding camper of his class’ - and in the Anderson Valley helped to create an ethic of taking care of people, being a friend and working partner with animals and loving the open landscape.
To recollect on the life of a truly noble human being is important, but it’s just as vital and timely to now ask, “Who are the Tom Russells-in-waiting of today?” Young women and men of promise, whether they be First Nation, white or Latino, black or multi-ethnic, from north county or west, from homes of means or humble backgrounds. What are we doing to encourage these young people to live their lives with purpose, and with strong ties to the land that uplifts us all, and shows us all correctly to be as equals?
-Craig Anderson, LandPaths Executive Director, August 28th, 2014
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