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Aging & Society

From Paul’s Perspective: Rekindled 60 Years Later, a Childhood Friendship Grows Closer Than Ever

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In his 73 years, Tom Wandel – my dearest childhood friend growing up in Omaha, NE – has seen more than his fair share of ups and downs.

Polio as a child.  Notable business successes as a commercial photographer.  Divorce.  Three children he loves.  Investment reverses – and bankruptcy.  But it took an encounter with a moose to help him find his true purpose.

“That moose changed my life,” he says.  “I’m the poorest old friend you have – but the happiest.”

Here’s what happened.

Inseparable as kids, Tom and I had raced our bikes through neighborhood streets, played ball in the corner lot, fished in the local park lagoon.  In high school, we found new friends and went our separate ways.  Losing touch was a growing regret.  When I finally reached out to him – 60 years later – I was thrilled by how easily we reconnected.  And inspired by the story he told of adversity, resilience and reinvention.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Tom built a series of thriving photographic studios, covering weddings, senior photos and special events, in Nebraska and Iowa.  He married and had three children.  The stress and hours of his work led to an amicable divorce.  Then, an ill-timed investment in an affordable housing project that collapsed “threw me into bankruptcy.”  He began to “find my way back,” gradually re-establishing a photography practice.

In the midst of all this, looking for a respite, he decided one day “on a whim” to load up his cameras and drive alone north into Canada.  In Manitoba near the Hudson Bay, he found himself surrounded by a stunning array of wildlife, from muskrats to sheep to polar beers.  The photos he took turned out stunning, too, and he decided to donate them to park services and conservation groups.   Today, he makes several such “treks” a year, travelling to national parks or wildlife reserves across North America.

“I just get lost in nature,” he says.  “When I’m doing this, I don’t have a care in the world.”

In 2006, however, one such trip in the Hudson Bay area took a disastrous turn.  Driving along a narrow, cliff-side road, transfixed by the Northern Lights, Tom was shocked when a moose jumped from the brush and struck his SUV.  He lost control and the vehicle plunged over the edge, rolling several times and landing against a large boulder.  When local Indians found him, he had broken numerous bones.  They got him to safety and thus began months of recovery.

He couldn’t keep up with the demands of his business or his bills.  Depression set in.  “Once again, I’d lost everything,” he recalls thinking.  “Nobody needed me for anything, and I felt irrelevant.  Finally, I started re-evaluating.  I was going to be relevant again.  I could still focus a camera.  I had to stop feeling sorry for myself.”

Out of this period, Tom made several decisions.  He’d stop chasing money.  He’d do what he loved. And he’d do it in a way that contributed to society.  Today, his non-profit, Indelible Images, exists for the sole purpose of giving away all the photos he takes.  Among grateful recipients are Native American museums, national parks, wildlife reserves and others.  On one sojourn, he came across the John James Audubon Park and Museum in Kentucky; he ended up using his skills to restore and digitize 700 images from the great naturalist. 

Tom purposefully lives on a shoestring, getting by on Social Security.  Several years ago, he began to offer his services to non-profits and institutions in his hometown, ranging from the Open Door Mission to the Omaha Police Department to the Nebraska Children’s home, from which he was adopted.  He is the volunteer director of Bountiful Harvest, a nonprofit dedicated to helping families with food insecurities to help themselves.

“I have no savings and little cash flow, but I do have a talent, and that’s what I can contribute to philanthropy,” he says.  “I like to call it, ‘talenthropy.’”

Without question, he is a happy person.  “No money worries,” he jokes.  “No money.  No worries.”

Rekindled after all these years, our friendship is richer than ever.  Next year, I’ll join Tom on an expedition to photograph the polar bear migration onto Hudson Bay.  It’s something I’d never have imagined doing until I reached out to my long-lost friend, and I know we’re both looking forward to it.

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