Valley insurance agent Tom Rousseau may be best known for the sayings on his business readerboard that have entertained passersby on Sprague Avenue for nearly two decades.
People have called him to say that their day was made brighter by his wit and pithy commentary.
What they may not know about is the volunteer time Rousseau has spent in the community. He prefers to remain behind the scenes.
“I’ve stayed in the background and it’s better that way,” he said. “I was never into recognition. There’s always somebody better than you.”
The fact remains that the unheralded Rousseau has been recognized by those who have benefited from his out-of-pocket generosity and volunteer activities.
A member of the Shriners since 1972, Rousseau helped form the local temple’s clown and animal units and western band.
In 1980 he became the temple photographer and since 1983 has been a national photographer and chairman of the Shriners’ national board.
“They are all one-year appointments,” said Rousseau. “They keep renewing me. It’s all volunteer, I don’t get paid.”
Seeing disabled children thrive because of the work of Shrine Hospitals, he said, is reward enough.
Rousseau won’t reveal his age, but says he is a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, spending 11 years as a Marine public information office photographer.
Too young to enlist right after high school graduation, he first spent four months at the New York Institute of Photography before enlisting.
Ironically, it was 25 years after his discharge before he lifted a camera again. Rousseau worked as a milkman in Spokane before starting his insurance agency in 1963.
Initially Rousseau channeled his volunteer time into youth sports. He helped coach and sponsor American Legion baseball teams and an assortment of recreational adult sports. Only one remains, a national-caliber women’s softball team.
“I figure with the money I’ve spent, I could be retired,” he said.
He tired of baseball and looked for another area to channel his energy.
“I liked what I saw in the Shrine,” said Rousseau. “Helping children. That’s the bottom line.”
One thing led to another and Rousseau found himself behind a camera again. He now owns six Canons and has shot everyone from local temple members to celebrities such as Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.
His office in the back of the insurance agency is a testimony to his volunteer work. It is there that he does Shrine business, sorting and cataloging hundreds of photos from the rolls of film that arrive from all parts of the country.
On his walls are examples of his work and the plaques he has received recognizing his service.
Rousseau makes six to eight national trips and numerous regional outings annually for the Shrine.
He thanks his son-in-law, Gary Pierce, a 19-year partner in the business, for enabling him to devote so much time to his avocation.
“Insurance has been very good to me and Gary is the reason I’ve been able to do this,” Rousseau said.
As for his readerboard, Rousseau remembered seeing a similar one at Monroe Street Lumber and always wanted to do it. He alone finds or creates the sayings, composes them to conform to a 14-letter, 4-line format and puts them up on the sign each week. He isn’t sure what will happen when he’s gone.
“People do read and look forward to it,” Rousseau said. “If I make them smile and brighten up their day, that’s all I want.”
That could be said of his volunteer service as well.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo