GREAT BARRINGTON -- Thomas P. Jaworski, who as Tom Jay served as the electronic town crier for South Berkshire during his 43 years as newsman at WSBS Radio, died on Wednesday at Bay State Medical Center in Springfield after suffering a major heart attack last Thursday. He was 70.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y. --"Polish-born, pure bred," he liked to say, Jaworski lived and worked in Great Barrington for most of his adult life.
Jaworski retired from WSBS in May 2008 after serving as morning newscaster, talk-show host and intrepid field reporter who covered many of the area's major stories since the mid-1960s, notably the tornado that swept through Great Barrington and vicinity on May 29, 1995, killing three people. As a lifeline to the community that was cut off from telephone communications, he broadcast live for many hours during the aftermath.
During 43 winters, Jaworski relayed word to anxious schoolchildren and their parents about school closings and delayed openings. He devised an elaborate code system for school administrators to use when calling in, so as to block any potential hoaxers seeking to call off classes.
By Clarence Fanto
GREAT BARRINGTON — Shortly before his retirement after 43 years of waking up South Berkshire with the day's happenings on WSBS radio, Thomas Jaworski, known to his listeners as Tom Jay, recalled some of the momentous events he had covered live, on the scene.
Most memorable, he told The Eagle, was the swirling tornado that tore through Great Barrington on the Sunday evening of Memorial Day weekend in 1995, killing three people, knocking down buildings on South Main Street, and scoring a direct hit on the old agricultural fairgrounds.
The broadcaster recalled seeing an ominous green sky from his home at the time on Blue Hill Road, a short walk from the radio station on Stockbridge Road. Immediately, he headed for WSBS.
“By the time I got there, all hell had broken loose,” he said. “I opened up the station van, threw equipment into it — portable transmitters, tape recorders, everything — and took off.”
Driving to South Main Street, he saw downed trees at Silver Street, snapped limbs of huge pine trees at the Mahaiwe Cemetery, and then, going behind police lines, remained on the air well into the night, describing the destruction.
“He played a big part in the 1995 tornado,” said Great Barrington attorney Edward McCormick, the emergency services director at the time. “We had no radio or telephone communication, but when I turned around, there was Tom with his ham-radio equipment, he was able to request help from other areas of the county and the state”
“We put on all kinds of information that night,” Jay recalled, playing back his description of the fairgrounds that he preserved on tape: “Oh my God, as we know the fairground, it is no more. Buildings that we knew, are not.”
On one occasion in the mid-1980s, a student spotted the code word on the principal's desk and managed to shut down the school -- the only case of a successful prank, Jaworski told The Eagle a few years ago.
Jaworski, who had also served as chief engineer at WSBS and spent much of his off time on his elaborate ham-radio installation at home nearby, was continuously employed at the Great Barrington AM station, owned for 38 years by the late Donald Thurston and his family, except for a brief stint working for the State Department as a communications specialist overseas during the Vietnam War era.
From 1966 to 2004, Jaworski was partnered with Nick Diller, the WSBS dawn patrol host.
"I'm shocked and saddened," Diller said on Wednesday. "It really hit me. We were like an old married couple. We had our great times and our ugly times. Tom was tough, he could be jovial but once in a while he would go off the deep end, like we all do. But he was good to work with."
Over the years, there were occasional disruptions of the morning routine at the WSBS studios on Route 7 -- such as the day a skunk found its way into the air conditioning unit, with predictable results. "Boy, we had fun with that!" Jaworski recalled during a pre-retirement conversation.
He remembered chasing after U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy in a canoe during Kennedy's visit to Benedict Pond at Beartown State Forest in Lee, during a campaign swing.
On one occasion, Jaworski covered the opening of a new business selling deep-sea equipment by reporting from a pool in full scuba-diving attire.
Some of the major stories that lingered in his memory, apart from the 1995 tornado, included the January 2000 drowning of Great Barrington kindergartner Shirley Palmer in the icy Housatonic River and a freak May snowstorm that knocked out power for five days in 1977.
Having been bitten by the radio bug as a youngster, Jaworski received his first amateur radio operator's license when he was 15 and, as he told The Eagle in a 2007 profile, "I have been a continuously licensed ham ever since."
He began as a high-speed teletype operator for Bank of America International on Wall Street after graduating from high school, served in the Navy from 1961-66 in the Great Lakes; Winter Harbor, Maine; Pensacola, Fla.; and in Adak, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands, where he went on the air for Armed Forces Radio under the name "Tom Ski" and also flew on Navy missions as a radio operator.
Corydon L. Thurston, former co-owner of WSBS: “It's tragic. Tom was always a happy, friendly personality, ideal for the morning slot with Nick Diller. He was a reassuring voice for the community. The station was a dependable source because of his nose for the news and his consistency. He was as dedicated an employee as one could imagine, making sure the community was informed. He always had a joke, a quick off-the-cuff comment with a sense of humor attached. Even if I hadn't been paying him to do the radio job, he would have been there for the community. You couldn't ask for any better person for truly being dedicated to his work, above and beyond the call of duty. He could be stubborn, after all he was Polish. That was part of his nature. He loved life, including food. I'm truly saddened, he'll be sorely missed in Great Barrington.”
Dick Lindsay, former WSBS colleague for 20 years, now an Eagle reporter: “We were the conduit to the outside world during events like the October 1987 snowstorm. You knew where he stood, he was very straightforward, wouldn't take no for an answer, ‘no comment' was not in his vocabulary. He may have been a bit gruff around the edges, but he had a big heart and was devoted to the Scouts. He really cared about the community because he lived in it and was invested in it.”
Edward McCormick, former Great Barrington Emergency Management director: “Tom was always on the scene, our voice to the community, helping us out to let people know what was going on. He did a great job of reporting the various meetings, he had a real knack of being non-biased. He could get very excited at times, but would calm down … it just worked out that way. He will be missed in the community. They don't make them like that anymore.”
Peter Barry, vice president, market manager, Vox Radio Berkshire Group: “He was the voice of southern Berkshire for 42 years, an icon of news, generations grew up listening to him. He had an incredible career, tremendous drive and passion for this business. I'm glad he had some enjoyable years of retirement.”
Dave Isby, WSBS station manager since January 2007: “He was a true professional, 42 years is really unprecedented. Once radio gets in your blood, it never really leaves. I'm really sad to see him go. We've dedicated a portion of the front page of our website, www.wsbs.com, to Tom.”
After visiting his family's second home in Ancram, N.Y., a Columbia County village not far from the Berkshires, Jaworski landed his first commercial radio job at WSBS in 1966, when it was owned by J. Leo Dowd, two years before the small station at 860 AM was purchased by the Thurston family of North Adams, which also owned two signals in that city.
Jaworski always cultivated a down-home, neighbor-next-door on-air persona, and insisted on never leading off a newscast with a fatal accident so as to avoid appearing as a "morning ghoul," he recalled.
At the time of his retirement, Jaworski emphasized that no run-ins with the new owners of the station, the Vox Radio Group, which acquired it in 2004, had led to his decision following a family conference with his wife, Marilyn, and their offspring at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., the family's favored vacation spot.
"We sat around the pool, the topic came up, the conversation got deeper and deeper," he said. "After three days, we brought our son and daughter into the discussion. I took long walks around the resort, and made a command decision with the family."
In the aftermath of two successful knee replacements, Jaworski explained that he wanted to be out and about enjoying life. He also looked forward to ending his daily regimen that required awakening at 2:45 a.m., never needing an alarm clock, to get to the station before dawn to sign it on the air and begin his newscasting.
Reminiscing about his many years in the thick of checking on police calls and fires, helping locate missing children and pets, broadcasting local obituaries and covering town meetings, politics and a wide array of community events, Jaworski said that Great Barrington had undergone major changes -- "from the nice, small New England town where everybody knew everyone else, to now when you walk down Main Street and see a lot of unfamiliar faces. But progress has to be made, and all of Berkshire County has changed."
In retirement, having served as a Great Barrington Scoutmaster for 30 years, Jaworski continued to volunteer as chief engineer for the Berkshire School's radio station, WBSL, in Sheffield.
Fond of telling anecdotes, and occasionally the spinner of tall tales, Jaworski insisted this one was authentic: "Some gentlemen out there in the dairy industry have told me their cows will not milk until they hear us on the air in the morning. Am I going to doubt a dairy farmer?"
Survivors include his wife of nearly 25 years, the former Marilyn Crosier, two stepchildren, Jodie McClay and her partner Dorothy DuPont of Pittsfield, and Douglas McClay and his wife Cherie of Pittsfield, three grandchildren, Laura, Howie and Emily, and his twin brothers Simon of Center Port, N.Y., and Peter of Ancram, N.Y.
Calling hours will be from 4-7 p.m. on Friday at the Birches-Roy Funeral Home, 33 South St., Great Barrington; the Liturgy of Christian Burial will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Peter's Church on Main Street, followed by burial with military honors at St. Peter's Cemetery.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
firstname.lastname@example.org or (413) 496-1003.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto