Former San Diego Magazine editor-in-chief Tom Blair passed away earlier this year due to complications from Alzheimer’s at the age of 74. A consummate storyteller, he was beloved by readers and was a magnetic personality within local media circles.
A year after freshly minted publisher Jim Fitzpatrick hired him to edit San Diego Magazine, Tom hired me as a staff writer. He promoted me to executive editor and we worked together for 12 years—from 1996 to 2008. Here are just some of my memories of what it was like to exist within his universe.
Being relatively new to San Diego, I quickly discovered that my editor was—way before Ron Burgundy uttered the line in Anchorman—“kind of a big deal.” He had Johnny Carson charisma and Dick Clark energy. As a boss, Tom could be as manic as Michael Scott, more gregarious than Captain Stubing, but always enigmatically cool like Mr. Roarke.
My new editor had a singing gig at an event in Balboa Park. I figured it’d be smart office politics to pop in, make points, and scurry off. Hearing him croon Sinatra covers took me aback. He was a solid and engaging performer. I stayed for the whole show.
Soon afterward, Tom took me to lunch at Dobson’s Bar & Grill. At his ever-brisk pace, we walked there from the magazine’s downtown office inside the First National Bank Center (now 1 Columbia Place). Dobson’s was the preeminent journo hangout. Paul Dobson greeted every guest amiably at the door, but Tom got the royal treatment. We were escorted to Tom’s special table on the balcony. Between bites of house-specialty mussel bisque, other diners paid homage. Fans mentioned his former newspaper column, lauded his singing, praised his morning appearances on KOGO radio, and congratulated him on his new post. Along with the well-wishers were tipsters. In hushed voices, people told Tom funny stories about their bosses or related nefarious deeds politicians were plotting. Tom scribbled it all down in the pocket-sized spiral notebook he always carried.
Tom wanted to take San Diego Magazine in a new direction. Founded in 1948, the magazine originally offered lifestyle coverage along with some news analysis. By the early 1990s, the insightful news features, from sharp writers like the legendary Harold Keen, had all but vanished.
He aspired for the magazine to read less like Better Homes and Gardens and more like Texas Monthly. That publication was highly respected in city magazine circles for being hard-hitting and newsy.
In his first Letter from the Editor, Tom wrote: “Instead of taking the pulse of the city, we at San Diego Magazine will give it a monthly physical.”
That’s how Tom operated. Monthly feature stories added depth and perspective to current events. The gifted writer Shane Liddick came on board as a regular contributor. What a wonderful era it was to have space for Liddick’s 6,000-word border stories, and his first- person accounts about living homeless or working at a towing company with questionable work practices.
Liddick was a finalist for the 2010 reporting award from the City and Regional Magazine Association. The winner that year: a writer from Texas Monthly.
Tom encouraged writers to dig a little deeper, ask more questions. If you were working on an investigative piece and ran into a dead-end, there was always Tom’s well-worn Rolodex. Nested on his always- cluttered desk, the Rolodex overflowed with names and phone numbers, mostly handwritten.
His own investigative prowess dated back to his days at the Union-Tribune. Tom helped unravel J. David Dominelli’s infamous 1980s pyramid scheme. His digging also brought down Mayor Roger Hedgecock. (The first time I unwittingly introduced myself to Hedgecock as “the new guy at San Diego Magazine,” the former mayor simply snarled at me.)
Tom’s forte, of course, was the “three-dot column.” His must-read collection of items, each separated by three asterisks, ran on the magazine’s coveted last page. Many readers opened the magazine from the back to read Tom’s tasty tidbits first.
He found big stories and told them in as few words as possible. Tom’s good friend, writer/contributor Thomas K. Arnold, says, “Tom’s column was like poetry. And that poetry was the story of San Diego.”
Tom is survived by his partner, Ed Schuppert; ex-wife, Wendy; their son, Thomas; and daughter, Amy. When his kids would visit our new offices at 1450 Front Street (now headquarters for Hughes Marino), Tom would gush over them. He was a proud papa.
In 2008, during the downsizing depths of the Great Recession, Tom was pushed to let me go from the magazine. It stung, and we didn’t cross paths for years—until a 2010 San Diego Press Club event. Tom was onstage announcing an award category and then... the guy who’d fired me called my name. I was dumbstruck. Unsurprisingly, Tom pulled it off with elegance and class. After the event, we chatted amicably in the crowd. Soon enough, people closed in to ask Tom about the latest gossip and pass on a few tips. He got out his notepad and started scribbling.
That was the last time we spoke.
Seems I get the last word. It’s an honor to memorialize Tom within these pages. He was truly one of a kind. Mr. San Diego. A journalist who always put in the work. Inarguably, Tom was the embodiment of a bygone era of great print newsgatherers.