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Tom Collins' energy, optimism left smiles in his wake
Tom Collins' energy, optimism left smiles in his wake

Nobody could smile like Tom Collins.

It was that flash of sunshine and joy and goodness kind of a smile that made strangers instantly feel welcomed and melt the worries of those it beamed upon.

When Tom smiled, his eyes shined with that deep-in-the-bones kind of joy, the kind of joy that embraces the smallest moments of everyday life, which when combined over time, wove a life that was one long momentous occasion.

When he had an accordion - or a fly rod - in his hands, that's when Tom's smile became downright magical, and he, downright magnetic.

And, by most accounts, that was most of the time, most of his life.

By the time he passed away, Jan. 7, at age 82, his family members didn't dare count the number of friends and acquaintances he tended to in his remarkably gregarious life.

"I always admired the fact that he would get up early in morning and correspond with all the people he wanted to keep in touch with - friends in Pennsylvania, in New Zealand, Nevada," said Jack Roemer, Tom's long-time Missoula friend and hunting companion.

"He loved people, and he had countless friends all over the world," he said. "He was the kind of guy, who if he met you, he would not forget you and most likely he'd write your name down and keep track of it, and you."

Each Christmas, Tom wrote and sent out well over 300 cards and each one of them had a personalized note, said Patrick Collins, the youngest of Tom's two boys.

But it wasn't just at the holidays that he wrote or contacted his friends. For him, staying in touch was a weekly, biweekly and monthly routine he stuck to his whole life. Once someone was on his list, there they remained.

"He would write these wonderful notes," said Oz Gutsche, a longtime friend who served as a co-trustee with Tom for the Alexander Dawson charitable trust foundation.

"He just had a special touch with people, a lost art if you will, that really made him stand out in today's hectic world. He was always so cordial, always such a gentleman."

Every week for 35 years he called his good friend Doug Swanson in Erie, Pa., to catch up, plan their annual fishing trips and talk Swanson into joining he and his wife, Bettie, on their Montana outings.

Like many of his friendships, Tom's relationship with Swanson began because of a chance meeting. Swanson's father, a severe diabetic, needed a vacation and boarded a train in 1957 to Washington state where he became friendly with a train employee. The train employee told the senior Swanson that Spokane was not the place to rejuvenate; Montana was.

"Go to Missoula and look up a guy named Tom Collins, and he'll tell you where to fish," the train employee said.

So the senior Swanson did and got more than he bargained for: a fishing guide and a lifelong friend.

"Dad died a few years after that first visit," Swanson said. "Tom was kind enough to continue the friendship through the mail and by phone, and every year he invited me out to go on a pack trip with him."

"My father was only 20 years older than me, and when he died, Tom, who was a few years younger than my dad, became more like an older brother to me," he said. "Over the years, he became a good friend and mentor."

Growing up, Michael and Patrick Collins were always amazed by their father's ability to make friends. By the time they reached adulthood, they learned never to be surprised by his social reach.

On a family vacation in 1987, the brothers were sitting on a New Zealand beach when a man and his young son recognized them as Americans and asked them what part of the country they lived in.

"At that time we were living in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene," Michael said. "We hadn't gotten but a few sentences into the conversation before the man mentioned that he had met a wonderful man from Montana the previous year that played the accordion.

"It was Dad."

Tom's charisma and his unusual ability to connect and draw people together had a profound impact on dozens of community institutions, environmental organizations and countless lives, said Jim Royan, a long-time Missoula friend.

Nobody could fund-raise or drum up interest for a cause like Tom, he said.

Between his knack for storytelling and his professional musical skill - which garnered international recognition - he was irresistible.

"The family joke was that his accordion was legal carry-on size, so wherever he went, wherever he flew, dad always took the accordion," Patrick said.

As a professional accordionist, Tom performed around the world and was often called upon to present seminars and workshops on the instrument in Europe and the South Pacific.

In his personal life, it went everywhere imaginable, even into the Bob Marshall Wilderness strapped to a mule.

"He played for his rancher friends. We packed that thing all over New Zealand; when we used to float the Blackfoot River every summer and float to his cabin, we'd have dinner there and out would come the accordion," Jack Roemer said. "I don't think we ever went hunting without the accordion."

"With it, he was really able to reach out to people and make friends," he said. "And people were really drawn to it - and to him."

Tom served on the Missoula and Montana chambers of commerce; was appointed to the first Missoula City-County Planning Board; was director of the Montana Department of Planning and Economic Development; was executive director of the University of Montana Foundation. He served on numerous boards and commissions including The Trout and Salmon Foundation, the Montana Historical Society Foundation, the Craighead Wildlife/Wildlands Institute and the Water Heritage Trust.

He was also a member of Rotary, the Elks, the Masons, the Shriners, the Royal Order of Jesters and Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.

"He was the most optimistic, energetic man I've ever met in my whole life and everyone else who knew him or had contact with him would say the same thing," Royan said. "What was so amazing is that he used all of that energy every day to find some way to help people, whether it was getting somebody involved with the University of Montana Foundation, or with a scholarship fund, or environmental concerns, or projects he had taken on in the community."

"Missoula is a lesser place now that he is gone," Royan said. "But we are a greater place because of him and everything he has done here."

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