Bittersweet memories of an influential journalist and friend

“Here, try this. It’s a New Zealand Chardonnay. Very light, not oily at all,” he said as he handed me a glass with just a splash of white wine. Being a crypto-wine snob myself, I would have turned down anything from New Zealand on my own, but when wine critic Tom Stockley offers you a wine glass, you’d be a fool not to take it.

One sip told me that this guy knows his stuff about wine. But that was no surprise. I was already convinced that this guy was an expert on many of life’s pleasures, including writing. For the past year, Tom had been a member of the Columns Advisory Committee, a panel of experts in journalism, design, public relations and advertising who advise the editor on the magazine’s look and content. At last December’s session, he hosted a wine tasting after our business meeting. For the first time in memory, everyone on the panel showed up—even our out-of-state member from New York—and it wasn’t just to discuss the “100 Alumni of the Century” article we had recently published.

The memory of that occasion now has a bittersweet aftertaste, with the death of Tom Stockley, ’58, and his wife, Margaret “Peggy” Hodges Stockley, ’59, on Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which plunged into the Pacific Jan. 31 near Los Angeles. All 88 passengers and crew perished.

Most of the tributes to Tom have focused on his writings about wine. In a field packed with snobs of the highest order, Tom was your everyday wine writer, your buddy who would let you in on a hot new label. “His attitude was, ‘I enjoy this. I hope you will enjoy this. Let’s enjoy this together,’ ” recalls Donna DeShazo, the Columns committee chair who has known Tom since they both worked together on the Daily in the late 1950s. “He was one of the most optimistic and sweetest guys I have ever known.”

Tom was also a great journalist—a superb feature writer whose byline graced the Seattle Times for 22 years, many of them in the Sunday magazine section. He was also the author of several books, including a guide to Pacific Northwest hot springs that he loved to talk about. (If there is a heaven, Tom is resting right now in his favorite hot spring with a glass of Merlot.)

Somehow he found the time to pass along to Columns the lessons he learned in his career. He’d let me know if something didn’t work, but always with encouragement. One of the committee’s duties is to critique each issue. Tom was always the first one to fill out the questionnaire I send with an advance copy, as if he had nothing else to do but sit down and read Columns cover to cover.

I would work hard on a piece that most readers simply skipped. But not Tom. When I wrote about my visit to Dachau in the September 1999 editor’s column, he wrote back, “I liked your ‘Prelude’ as a lead-in to the cover article. Most editor’s notes seem to be ‘filler.’ You always do such a thoughtful job.” On that same issue’s cover article on Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos, ’49, ’50, he wrote, “Jon Marmor brought it to life so beautifully that I couldn’t resist reading it. It was just a great combination of a good subject and a talented writer.”

Sometimes in this business you can get a little discouraged. After “100 Alumni of the Century” came out, I got letters, faxes, e-mails and phone calls calling the list “stupid and neglectful,” “truly insulting,” “questionable,” and “a slap in the face.” Having Tom Stockley looking over my shoulder, offering encouragement and advice, made a great deal of difference.

Last night, before I went home, I visited a local wine store. In the back bins there was a bottle of New Zealand Chardonnay. The wine clerk gave me a curious look, but I didn’t care. I opened that bottle when I got home and gave a toast to someone who put more joy into our lives. And that’s a great legacy to leave behind.