Lost family grieves after homeless vet dies alone in Santa Fe
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.
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.”
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.”
By 1989, Tommy Williamson was showing even more pronounced signs of mental health issues. That’s the year a psychiatrist called his family to report that Tommy had checked himself into a veterans hospital in Texas. When he was transferred to another nearby hospital, his mother and brother went to visit him.
“He was so paranoid,” his mother recalled.
After they took him to a store to buy him Christmas presents, Hoover said, she had a feeling that was the last time she would see her son.
“We were sitting in the car and I watched him walk across that parking lot, and I said, ‘Garry, I will never see him again.’ And I didn’t,” she said. “That’s the last time I saw him.”
The next time a family member saw him alive was when he showed up in Little Rock.
“He didn’t ask me for anything,” his brother said of the interaction in 2001. “Back in the day, believe me, he’d ask me in a heartbeat: ‘Let’s go get some beer. Do you want to smoke a joint, do a line, something?’ ”
But that time, Tommy Williamson told his brother he was sober.
“He said, ‘All I do is read my Bible now,’ ” Garry recalled. “But he was not mentally stable even at that point. The paranoia had already kicked in. It looked like he was happy doing what he was doing. But I knew from that point that he would never be normal.”
Over the years, his family tried in vain to find Tommy, asking friends in law enforcement and with military backgrounds if they could help. Occasionally, they would track him to a homeless shelter only to find out years had passed since he had been there. At some point, the leads dried up.
“I hope that he knew somewhere in his all mixed-up mind that there were people who loved him, spent 20 years searching for him,” his mother said.
Hoover said she “probably could’ve filled the Mississippi River with tears.” Not a day went by that she didn’t think about her son, she said.
“There is a place in my heart that I think that was sort of reserved; it’s almost like a little private room,” she said. “I didn’t talk about it much, but it’s like almost every day I would open the door to that room and wonder where he was, what he was doing.”
Hoover said that when she finally learned of Tommy’s death, and how he had been found, all the years of grief “just flooded out.” Seeing a picture of her son with a sunken face and stringy, dirty hair in a story online about his death was particularly difficult.
“When I saw that picture, I thought I would die,” she said. “I think that spoke to the fact that he really had become almost a shell, an island all to himself.”
But, Hoover said, at least she finally knew Tommy wasn’t suffering.
“I know he’s not cold and I know he’s not hungry and I know he is whole,” she said. “That means so much to me that he is whole, and I think I can clean that little room out and it can be a happy place now and not a place that I feel I have to close off.”
Only a flukish twist of fate allowed Tommy’s family a bit of closure.
Garry Williamson said the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator was able to contact him because Tommy Williamson had started using his brother’s Social Security number.
“I think that was just an act of God and a mistake on his part. They found us one day before he went to county,” Garry said, referring to preparations by New Mexico officials for an indigent burial. “The guy was just about to give up. If it wouldn’t have been for that, we would have never known what happened to him.”
Though the state has yet to release an autopsy report, the medical investigator is going to list the cause of death “as hypothermia due to complications from pneumonia,” Garry said.
Tommy Williamson was buried with military honors Thursday at a small, private ceremony at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, about a 45-minute drive from Hoover’s home.
“This doesn’t seem real yet, but I am so thankful that we were able to put him to rest in a very dignified way,” his mother said. “I feel like that honored him as a human being, and I think it will help to heal our hearts. That was a blessing, and I think when times like these happen, we have to look for those tiny pinholes of light.”
In the eulogy, Hoover told the small circle of family and friends that Tommy Williamson had been separated from them by time and distance.
“But no amount of distance and no number of years could ever separate Tommy from our hearts, from our love,” she said. “We continually searched for him, praying that God would keep him safe and bring him home. God answered that prayer a week ago.”
Hoover and her family hope Tommy’s death will bring more attention to homelessness.
“His life would not define success at all, the way we think about success,” his mother said. “But if his passing helps raise the awareness of the plight of homeless people, then I would say Tommy’s life meant something.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.