Lost Family Grieves After Homeless Vet Dies Alone in Santa Fe

(Photo: U.S. Army)
(Photo: U.S. Army)

As he had so many times before, Tommy Williamson showed up out of the blue some 18 years ago.

"I don't remember who he called, but they called me, and I was able to meet up with him," recalled Williamson's younger brother, Garry, who was living in Little Rock, Ark., at the time. "I asked him what he wanted. He said, 'I just wanted to visit with you and get cleaned up.' "

After about an hour of reconnecting, Tommy Williamson said he needed to get back on the road. He didn't ask for money, but his brother gave him all the cash in his pocket, about $200, and dropped him off on the side of Interstate 30.

"The last time I saw him was ..." Garry Williamson paused, crying. "I drove off with him in my rearview mirror."

After nearly two decades apart, Garry was reunited with his brother Tuesday in Dallas.

But this time, Tommy Williamson, who was 60, arrived in a coffin.

A lost and lonely soul who lived the life of a drifter, Thomas Wayne Williamson -- known as Tommy by his family -- died on a cold January night in the doorway of a Starbucks on West San Francisco Street in downtown Santa Fe. A delivery driver making a stop just off the Plaza, on a block lined with upscale art galleries, jewelry stores and other shops, found Williamson dead around 4:30 a.m.

Williamson was in a sleeping bag. Under his head was a backpack he used as a pillow.

While an average of 25 homeless people die annually in Santa Fe, Williamson's death in the heavily trafficked historic heart of the city seemed to jolt its residents -- provoking sadness, compassion, anger and calls for more action regarding the problem of homelessness.

"Maybe the fact that he died in front of Starbucks and in a sleeping bag might've brought people some more awareness that we do have homeless with no place and just a sleeping bag in front of a store," said Nancy McDonald, director of Santa Fe Community Services, a nonprofit that provides services to homeless and low-income people.

"It might have brought homelessness more to the forefront, might have made people more aware that we do have our brothers and sisters out there who need help and kindness -- and not having so many people turn their heads when they see homeless people," McDonald added. "We have to reach out to them, even if it's just a smile, just so they see that they're seen."

McDonald said she met Williamson about 15 years ago and believes he lived in Santa Fe most of that time. She said he was "always so kind" and "lovely" but never accepted her offers to go to the homeless shelter or obtain government services.

"He didn't want any part of that," she said. "Every once in a while, I'd put that suggestion out. He'd say, 'No, I'm fine,' even though you could see that he was struggling. But you would never know that by his demeanor or friendliness."

McDonald said she always looked for Williamson, who would hang out near Starbucks or at the fountain across the street from Hotel St. Francis, where homeless people congregate.

"He was such a sweet-hearted, kind man," she said. "I feel so privileged to have known him."

But it seems few people really knew Tommy Williamson. Even to those who loved him most, he seemed just a step out of reach. And when he dropped out of sight completely, tethered only to a difficult and painful past, no one in his family knew how to find him and bring him home.

Until it was too late.

Becoming Tommy

In Santa Fe, Williamson had several minor brushes with police over the years but mostly kept to himself.

If not for the giant backpack that earned him the nickname "Turtle Tom," Williamson was just another faceless, nameless homeless person in the city.

Telling the story of his life as an adult is difficult because there were few eyewitnesses.

After his death, authorities struggled to locate next of kin. It was only a stroke of luck at the eleventh hour that prevented his remains from being turned over for an indigent burial.

"We had been looking for him for 18 years," Garry Williamson said, explaining that no one else in his family had seen his brother since that day he left him on a roadside in Arkansas to hitchhike away.

This much is known: Tommy Williamson was born March 10, 1958, in Little Rock, and weighed 7 pounds, 3 ounces and was 19 inches long.

"He was a little porky pig as a baby," his mother, Fran Hoover, said.

Garry Williamson was born 11 months and eight days after his brother, Hoover said, and the boys' father abandoned the family not long after.

Garry suspects his parents' separation played a role in his older brother's turbulent adult life.

"I think he was one of those kids who needed both parents from the cradle to the grave," Garry said. "He didn't need a divorced family. He didn't need a stepfather. He needed [his biological parents]."

His mother remembers Tommy as a fun-loving kid who was outgoing and well-liked.

"The interesting thing is he always loved to dress up," said Hoover, who lives in the Dallas area. She moved there to raise her boys after their father left.

"Tommy was pressed," she said. "Button-down collar. His hair was trim. Beautiful strawberry-blond hair."

Hoover said Tommy and his younger brother attended a Christian school and participated "in all the youth programs."

"Of the two, Tommy was the one who would follow the rules," she said. "If I had to leave, I'd leave Tommy in charge because I knew Tommy could be depended on to follow the rules. Not so with his brother."

Garry Williamson, who now lives in South Carolina, said he and his brother generally had a normal childhood, "a very good upbringing."

Things started to change when they were teenagers.

Garry Williamson said his brother decided at the age of 15 or 16 to move to Arkansas to live with his father, Wayne C. Williamson, a Korean War veteran who was an alcoholic and died of acute alcoholism at the age of 42. He said their grandfather, Bart Williamson, a successful builder, also was an alcoholic. He died at 62.

"Come to find out, our dad was just really drinking heavy, and Tommy got to drinking, and our dad didn't care. He said, 'Well, I'd rather you drink at home than drink on the street,' " the younger brother said. "Looking back on it, that's stupid because you're condoning something for your child that, like in Tommy's case, was very detrimental."

Hoover said the boys' father "never took responsibility for anything."

She credits her second husband of nearly 45 years, retired mathematician Ernie Hoover, with giving her boys a father figure.

Fran Hoover said that when Tommy moved to Arkansas, he lived mostly with his grandmother and only for a short time. But he wasn't the same when he moved back home to Texas, she said.

"He seemed restless," she said. "I felt maybe that I was losing him. He got quieter. He wasn't as active. He wasn't active in church and he quit school. I didn't know he quit school. He was acting like he was going, but he didn't go."

The descent

In 1977, Tommy Williamson joined the Army. While the Hoovers thought the military would provide the discipline and structure he needed, they wonder if it might have made matters worse.

"When he was in the Army in Germany, he got into doing heroin," Garry Williamson said. "He really had access to a lot of alcohol and a lot of drugs, and nobody cared."

After receiving an honorable discharge in 1979, Tommy Williamson "made all the steps to be normal," his brother said, "but every time, life kicked the feet out from under him."

After the Army, Tommy Williamson went to college in Texas but dropped out.

"He couldn't shake the demons long enough," his brother said.

Tommy worked construction and other jobs and then got married and fathered a child. But the baby boy, who was born with abnormalities, lived only eight days. The death, Garry said, put his brother "over the edge."

"I know that really tore him up," Garry said. "In that state of mind, those negatives just constantly kick your feet out from under you, and you don't know how to rebound. At some point, your mind says, 'No more. If I don't have a home, I don't have to worry about losing a home. If I don't have a wife, I don't have to worry about losing a wife. If I don't have any children, I don't have to worry about losing the children.' "

Tommy and his wife split up after the death of their child. Garry said he doesn't know her whereabouts nor remember her maiden name.

Tommy Williamson was in and out of his family's life after that.

"He'd work with you for a while. He'd get some money and then he'd decide he was going somewhere else, and you wouldn't see him for a year or so," his brother said.

The family tried to help him, Hoover said, but Tommy didn't want to be helped. A real estate agent, Fran Hoover said she once took an entire commission check and bought a car for her son, thinking all he needed to get back on his feet was transportation.

"He drove it straight to California and sold it for meth," she said.

Hoover said she often blamed herself and questioned whether she could have done anything different.

"Of course, I think when something like this happens, you look back and say, 'What could I have done? What if I had done this? What if I had done that?' As God is my witness, we did everything we knew to do to help him, to get him help." 

This article is written by Daniel J. Chacon from The Santa Fe New Mexican and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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