The Columbia Missourian newspaper announced who the recipients of their 2017 Progress Awards were last week, and when the Sherman Brown, Jr. Award (recognizing a community member who always serves others with the highest esteem and treats everyone like gold) was given to Southern Boone resident Tom Oleski, I was elated, but not at all surprised.
Tom Oleski has been a dear friend of mine since we became neighbors back in 2002. Our two families lived across the road from one another for nearly a decade until the growing Naughton clan relocated to a bigger house a few miles away. During those years, I was lucky enough to get to know Tom, his wife Cesca, and their kids Peter and Victoria quite well. I can honestly say that I don’t know if I’ve ever met a friendlier family in all my life.
And I don’t know if I’ve ever met a kinder, funnier, or more likable man than Tom. As anyone who has ever had the pleasure of speaking to him will attest, Tom has never met a stranger. He does not simply make your acquaintance; he becomes one of your best friends. I fondly recall a story he told me of meeting Ted Danson while attending a Dodgers baseball game years ago in Los Angeles. The two men were both standing in line at a concession stand when Tom accosted the famous actor. “Hello, Mr. Danson,” Tom began. “My name is Tom Oleski and I just wanted to make sure you had a chance to meet me.” The “Cheers” star had a good laugh and shook Tom’s hand, then bought his new friend a beer.
Tom and I have spent hours discussing his adventures in California, his childhood in St. Louis, and his current life on Bud Wyman Lane. Our shared love of the Cardinals, country living, and our families ensures that we will never run out of things to talk about. But you don’t have to live near Tom to have the pleasure of conversing with him. You can always visit with him while standing in his checkout line at Schnuck’s supermarket in Columbia—as long as you’re not in a hurry.
Tom earned the Sherman Brown, Jr. Award—an honor named for the long-time owner of Lindsey Rentals who was a beloved member of the Columbia business community for decades— mostly because of his years of service as a checker at the grocery store. Despite the hurried nature of the job he has, Tom always takes the time to strike up a conversation with each and every customer who has the good fortune of going through his line. It’s more than just polite small-talk. When Tom asks you how you’re doing, he truly wants to know.
In an increasingly impersonal world, making and maintaining meaningful relationships becomes more and more difficult. Yet Tom makes it seem so easy. But how? Tom understands that every person he meets has a story to tell. Some of those stories are humorous, some are harrowing, and some are heartbreaking. By visiting with his friends and customers and listening to their stories, Tom shows them that someone in this world genuinely cares about them. That kind of interaction can make all the difference to someone who may be struggling just to hang on.
Tom has his own stories to tell that fall into those same categories. His life has not always been easy. Yet throughout all of the challenges he and his family have faced, Tom has remained a beacon of positivity. Just being around him makes people feel good. The world needs more people like Tom Oleski. A lot more.
Tom, congratulations on your award. I can’t think of anyone more deserving. Thank you for all the stories you’ve told me over the years and all the laughs we’ve shared. Thank you for dog-sitting, for letting me fish in your pond, and for the memories of chasing your escaped cows on Thanksgiving Day.
Thank you, neighbor, for your generosity and for the kindness you have shown me and my family over the years. Thank you for being you. It is an honor to be your friend.