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Shawn Vestal: Remembering Tom Westbrook: Father, friend, apprentice

When Tom Westbrook’s children were young, and he had guests over – as he frequently did – he liked to call in the kids for a little performance.

What, he’d ask, does the dog say? Bow-wow, his kids would dutifully reply.

What does the cat say? Me-ow.

“ ‘Well, what does Socrates say?’ ” said Mark Westbrook, who was one of those kids and who is telling this story. “ ‘Know thyself!’ ”

There is a lot of Tom Westbrook in that little tale – his sense of humor, his love of philosophy and ideas, his style as a father, his flair as a host and catalyst for connection. Westbrook died over the weekend at age 86. If there is any consolation in it, it’s that hundreds of people whose lives he brightened will have the chance to remember and share their stories of him.

He is a difficult man to summarize. He worked for the Red Cross early in life, sold insurance, worked as a community organizer, taught in colleges and invented a device that helped TV companies gauge audience reactions. He was a devout Catholic who liked to gather with clergy and members of other faiths. He leaned left politically but deplored the tenor of modern politics. He repeatedly organized events at which people of different views could discuss the issues of the day – or “the eternal verities.”

And yet a sense of humor and mischief reigned. A prime example: His death came six years after his wake, which he organized and threw for himself.

“So we’ve had a rehearsal,” said longtime friend Verne Windham, program director at Spokane Public Radio.

“Yeah, we had a practice run,” said his daughter, Rebecca Westbrook-Shields.

It’ll be hard to top that wake. Hundreds of people came to his South Hill home. Bands played in the front and back. Westbrook read poetry. The crowd took a bus to Greenwood Cemetery and marched up the hill. Dennis Hession, then the city’s mayor, gave the eulogy.

Part of Westbrook’s reason for throwing his own wake was to say: Death is nothing to be afraid of. Part was his reluctance to let someone else do the planning.

“He wanted it done his way,” said Bill Powell, a friend for 50 years. “He did things his way. He was never hesitant about anything he was going to do.”

Some 50 years ago, ticked off by someone’s suggestion that liberals were not patriotic, Westbrook started a remarkable annual Spokane event – Freedom in the Arboretum, where people gather for an Independence Day picnic and reading of the Declaration of Independence at the Finch Arboretum.

Another enduring project was Haircut Sunday. Starting in the 1980s, he began inviting men over to his home to get a haircut and talk politics. He brought in the former barber from the then-closed Davenport Hotel, Rudy Duarte, and set up a barber’s chair in a converted shed. A regular roster of neighbors, friends and others, including political officials and candidates, would show up for a trim and some smart talk, prodded and moderated by Westbrook. Several friends and family members gathered there in the shed this week to share their memories.

“My brother’s basic idea was, men don’t socialize as easily as women, and men need a task,” said “Sev” Westbrook, a Catholic priest and Tom’s brother. “The task would be the haircut.”

As it developed, “at least half the people didn’t get haircuts. It really was for the discussion,” he said.

Born in St. Paul, Minn., Westbrook served in the Army and then joined the Red Cross in the 1950s. He met Janet Staley in Germany, and they were married in 1958. They raised five children and had nine grandkids.

They moved to Spokane in 1962 to be near Sev, who was Tom’s only brother and closest friend. Westbrook worked as a community organizer in Spokane in the early stages of the War on Poverty and was an activist and rabble rouser on behalf of a range of causes – from opposing wars to promoting civil rights.

In the 1970s, he returned to college for a degree in speech communications and later taught at Gonzaga and Eastern Washington universities. During that time, he invented the “Tell-Back” – a device that allowed a gathering of people to give continuous reaction to TV shows, political debates or commercials. TV production companies became clients – but even as he was being courted by Madison Avenue executives, Westbrook liked to be the one who was leading the way.

Mark Westbrook said that when three ABC bigwigs came to town to check out the Tell-Back, his father picked them up at the airport.

“Dad says, ‘You know before we get to the hotel I want to show you some property I bought,’ ” Mark said.

Tom drove them past the new plot he’d purchased at Greenwood Cemetery, near the giant white Cross of Inspiration that overlooks the city. Later, he added a memorial bench. He once had a big family picture taken there. At his wake six years ago, his kids stood up on it and sang, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” the comically irreverent song from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”

He loved to read, keep up on the news and discuss ideas. He was, in the fullest sense of the word, a citizen – someone who takes the responsibility of being a member of a democracy to heart in a way that few do. He helped bring public radio to town in 1980 and was a devoted listener and supporter. He also worked on the sanctuary movement during that time, which tried to provide safe haven for Central American refugees.

He was an organizer, a convener, a cajoler and persuader, a constant gatherer, and if he was often out in the front – as Powell says, “the loudest guy singing the hymn” – it was only to try and get others moving.

“He was so adamant that we get to know each other, and not just sit in our little shells,” Windham said.

Perhaps the best single description was one he put on his own nameplate: “Tom L. Westbrook: Apprentice.”

“That’s what he wanted to be thought of,” Mark Westbrook said. “He was always trying and learning.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.