Tom Zbyszewski accomplished much in a short life, but will be most remembered for his engaging personality
Edited on 8/29 to add contact information to suggestions for memorial contributions.
By Don Nelson
Richard “Ski” and Jennifer Zbyszewski knew early on that there was something special about their son Tom.
At Little Star Montessori School in Winthrop, “Tom always chose his own pathway,” Jennifer said at the Zbyszewski home near Carlton this week. “He wasn’t interested in what the other kids were doing.” But the other kids often gravitated toward Tom to see what he was doing, because it was likely to be interesting.
Tom crammed an incredible variety of interests and activities into a life that was cut short last week, when he died fighting the Twisp River Fire during its first hours. Tom was part of a U.S. Forest Service fire crew. Two of his colleagues also died and another was critically injured when their truck apparently was trapped as rapidly shifting winds turned the fire toward them.
Tom, who was born in the Methow Valley, graduated from Liberty Bell High School in 2013 as the class salutatorian, and was about to enter his junior year at Whitman College in Walla Walla this fall. He was a month shy of his 21st birthday.
At Liberty Bell, Tom was involved in Math Counts and Math Is Cool, Knowledge Bowl and Speech & Debate, and was the first runner-up for the Washington State Poetry Out Loud competition in 2013. He appeared in many plays at school and at The Merc Playhouse in Twisp.
At Whitman, where he was majoring in physics with a minor in Chinese, Tom also was in several productions at the Harper Joy Theatre during his freshman and sophomore years.
Since Tom’s death on Aug. 19, the Zbyszewskis have been deluged with visitors offering condolences and support, and by reporters from all over the country seeking a compelling story. Tom’s is certainly that.
Energy and enthusiasm
Tom Zbyszewski drew people to him without really trying, largely because he was so accepting and open to new things, his parents say.
“He was a thoughtful, kind, sharing person,” Ski said.
“He had affection for everyone he met,” Jennifer said. “He genuinely cared about people.”
He was also remarkably self-directed.
“In first grade, he announced out of the blue that he wanted to do karate,” Jennifer said. That led to years of training in tae kwan do.
Characteristically, Tom “wasn’t interested in other sports,” Ski said. But he was athletic, as a martial arts practitioner, skier and swimmer — activities where he could be an individual competitor but still be part of a team.
Tom was an avid student who “always liked school,” Jennifer said. “He liked doing homework.” Tom eagerly took on academic challenges and formed close relationships with many of his teachers at Liberty Bell, Jennifer said.
But he wasn’t a bookworm, and his creative force was perhaps best expressed on the stage and in Poetry Out Loud competition. Tom made his dramatic debut in grade school, playing a villain in a student play. “He kind of blossomed [in theater] after that, and then really took off,” Jennifer said.
That was a contrast that surprised his parents, who say Tom was always quiet at home. “Then we’d go to one of his performances and he would dominate the stage,” Jennifer said. “He loved performing.”
Tom did everything full-tilt, with unflagging enthusiasm and energy, his parents say. Not only did Tom juggle a full schedule of activities, but he actually learned to juggle, Jennifer said.
Tom never felt constricted by living in a small rural community. “The opportunities he had here were amazing,” Jennifer said. “They were very diverse, and that fit him well.”
“All of the things he reveled in — we are so lucky to have them here,” she added.
“He never complained about what the valley lacks,” Ski said. “He was content to be home. I never saw him bored.”
To be sure, Tom traveled as well. But he was always glad to be back in the valley. He found a second home at Whitman College, his parents say. Whitman was a “perfect fit,” Jennifer said, although he had to learn to make new friends. He was always eager to return to school, she said.
Love of firefighting
The Zbyszewskis are a Forest Service family. Ski worked for the Forest Service for 20 years, Jennifer works at the Methow Valley Ranger District office in Winthrop. Becoming a firefighter wasn’t out of character for Tom.
“He loved it … he loved the physical part,” Jennifer said. “And he loved the camaraderie of the crew, to be part of that kind of an organization.”
Tom worked hard during last summer’s fires and this year’s, getting up early and coming home tired and dirty. “He never complained,” Jennifer said.
Tom especially looked forward to this summer’s work “because he wasn’t the newbie,” Jennifer said.
Monday (Aug. 24) was going to be Tom’s last day as a firefighter this season. He turned down a trip to China to work with the Forest Service again. “I wish now that he had gone to China,” Ski said.
The Zbyszewskis say they have no anger in their hearts about what happened to Tom and are not placing blame. “We just don’t want anyone else to get hurt,” Ski said. “We don’t want anything to happen to them. We worry about everyone. We miss Tommy terribly, but we want people to be safe.”
“The fire changed on a dime,” Jennifer said. “That’s how dangerous it can be.”
“I carry no anger toward anyone,” Ski said. “It’s just something terrible that happened, and I don’t want to see it happen again.”
The Zbyszewskis said they hope that the three firefighters’ deaths does not result in the same kind of recrimination and blaming that came out of the Thirty Mile Fire of 2001, in which four fighters died. The investigations, findings and actions that came later caused much turmoil within the Forest Service.
Grateful for support
The community’s outpouring of caring has touched the Zbyszewskis deeply the past few days since Tom’s death. “It’s been great,” Ski said of the community’s concern. “Everyone has been so sweet. Everybody misses him terribly. It’s a big blow. He had a lot of friends here. He was someone they liked and admired, and had fun with.”
“It’s been an incredible outpouring of love and support, which we so much appreciate, ” Jennifer said. As devastating as losing their only child has been, she said, it has been comforting “to share our grief with people who knew and loved Tom.”
“The community is carrying us along, sharing our grief,” Jennifer said. “It means more to us than we can possibly express.”
“It’s wonderful to see the love that people have for Tommy,” Ski said. “We really want the community to know how much we appreciate their love and support.”
A memorial service for Tom is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 6, in the Liberty Bell High School gymnasium at 1 p.m. There will be a reception afterwards.
The Zbyszewskis encourage people who want to commemorate Tom to donate to either The Merc Playhouse or the Methow Valley Education Foundation, which has established a scholarship in his name.
Editor’s note: Contact The Merc Playhouse at P.O. Box 425, Twisp, WA 98856 or through the donation link at www.mercplayhouse.org in memory of Tom Zbyszewski. Contact the Methow Valley Education Foundation at P.O. Box 3056, Winthrop, WA 98862.
The USFS memorial service for the three fallen firefighters, including Tom can be found online at www.khq.com/story/29918241/hundreds-gather-to-remember-fallen-firefighters. Because this link will lead you off our site, we have no control over how long the content will be available. If you discover it is no longer available on the KHQ website, please email email@example.com. Thank you.
People have submitted their own thoughts about Tom to the newspaper. Here are a couple of them. We’ll publish more as we receive them.
Adam Kaufman, Liberty Bell High School
I worked closely with Tom as his Spanish teacher for three years, 9 – 11 and then as his AP English teacher 12th grade, and through National Honor Society and Poetry Out Loud.
Tommy asked great questions and had an insatiable curiosity about the world and about many different disciplines. He was unafraid to show his intellectual curiosity in front of his peers, which made it much more likely for other students to engage with learning. His nuanced and perceptive interpretations of poetry, drama, and fiction made for insightful class discussions in AP English, and informed his writing, which was very compelling and articulate.
Personally, Tommy radiated positive energy, enjoyed connecting with people, had a big smile and a contagious laugh. He was one of those people who brightens up a room and makes people feel good.
Tommy’s voice and stage presence, developed through drama performances and Speech and Debate tournaments, made him an animated and effective performer in Poetry Out Loud, the national poetry recitation contest. Tommy’s recital of Mark Doughty’s poem “Golden Retrievals,” which conveys the perceptions and desires of a golden retriever, was an audience favorite as Tommy won the local and regional Poetry Out Loud contests and narrowly missed representing Washington state at the national competition.
That Tommy unabashedly shared his gifts, passions, and friendly personality with everyone around him was perhaps his greatest contribution. I feel lucky to have known him and his family.
While in between jobs a few years ago, I substituted at Liberty Bell High School. I clearly remember the day I met Tom Zbyszewski, a senior that year. The students were working on research papers, compiling data on skills and education required to pursue their desired career paths.
The students had split up into lively groups. Tom was hunkered over a laptop, intently focused and typing quickly, seemingly oblivious to the conversations around him. I asked him what his paper was on, and he responded in a friendly and efficient tone, explaining a brief outline of his paper that was already completed. He had finished it a week prior and was working on a completely different assignment.
I was instantly struck by the focus that he exuded. He moved, spoke, and performed with intent. I was not surprised to learn later that he had won the Poetry Out Loud regional competition in Spokane later that school year. The Spokesman-Review noted about his performance: “One of Tom’s greatest strengths was his ability to use his entire body to capture the mood of the poem.”
Tom did everything, it seemed, out loud, using his entire body to move the mood of everyone around him.