By Bruce Wilkinson
Tom Nogler passed away on Saturday, January 4th, died of a heart attack, and everyone who knew him was in shock, he was 66. While I’m deeply sad personally after knowing him for the past decade, It’s also a big shock to the public power initiative campaigns. I know that he would want his death to inspire our fight. He would want us to come together and come out stronger.
Tom Nogler was the one who triggered the formation of this campaign. He called me November 5th, 2019, which I remember was election day for local government. The day before I had been let go from my job in tree work which I had been doing the past 3 years, so I was in quite a mood. I thought Tom was calling me about chipping some branches that I said I could probably do for him. I had to break it to him that I wasn’t going to be able to swing by after work with the chipper that day or any other day going forward. Instead though he was calling me about helping him with a fundraiser for Olympia Public Power.
I listened to him, but as he mentioned their plans for a city initiative, rusty gears in a part of my brain started turning. I asked Tom why weren’t they doing a countywide initiative instead like in 2012? A lesser man would have been openly annoyed, here he was trying to get my help with a fundraiser and there I was questioning the whole campaign, but Tom answered my questions with his traditional even keeled patience.
What I got out of that conversation was the spark of inspired mania that drove me to spend the rest of the week doing research and setting up a website to try and see if there was interest for Thurston Public Power Initiative 2020. I called and messaged everyone I knew. I just needed people who could hear me, feel the excitement and get involved. As I reached out, by the end of the week I had gotten one person to say yes. By the end of the next week it was three people.
Meanwhile I started stopping by Tom’s house fairly frequently. Casa De Nada is the sort of place one stops by unexpected and because of that Tom Nogler had the habit of having an enormous pot of soup that was perpetually getting eaten and added to. He would would listen to my manic ideas, as well as Chris Stearns. I kept wanting them to laugh at me and tell me to get real, but they never would.
I had serious doubts about whether it would get off the ground. Going from nothing to something is difficult but there is never really nothing, there is always something. In this case, we had the exact same initiative done in 2012. All I had to do was reveal it’s essence and with it’s essence found, weave it’s tale from 2012 till today. The magic was with Tom Nogler.
I recalled the elated feelings I had in December of 2011 when I was with Tom in the back room of the Italian restaurant near GrossOut. This group of people saying seditious things like it was time to take down PSE. The first meeting of the Thurston Public Power Initiative in 2012. It was right after Occupy Olympia and I felt like the campaign happening was an inspired and surprising result. Our imaginations opened to new possibilities.
I was a minor volunteer back then. I gathered around 400 signatures, helped on social media, tabled and sign waved a few times. Tom Nogler and a handful of others were the power behind public power and Tom played the part of organizer. He was the guy who was always on the phone checking in with everyone and showing up where he was needed. That was his gift, knowing people, understanding people and not being afraid to call someone up and ask for something.
A campaign for Tom was talking to a thousand people. He had no social media accounts. He spent very little time as far as I could tell online. He had an email address and read emails sent to him. I know this because he would reference in conversation emails I’d sent, but despite ten years of sending him emails I don’t think I got many in return. He did send text messages, he would probably have been good at Twitter. He seemed to think that social media was what I liked to do. I didn’t but I’d often ended up doing it, partially at times because he would expect me to do it.
I spent a lot of time with Tom Nogler and Rick Fellows over the past decade because of my involvement in Media Island and their involvement in everything good. I was younger and very different from them both and looked up to them as mentors as well as friends and conspirators. Sometimes I was a pain in their ass. Maybe often is the more apt word. There were about two years in that mix when we weren’t speaking. However, eventually I came crawling back and the reason is simple, I missed them.
I wish Tom Nogler were here. I’ve never had his confidence. It was a confidence in understanding perfectly his position relative to power. On many occasions Tom would refer to himself and his comrades as losers but it wasn’t meant to be derogatory, it was matter of fact. I was clearly a loser according to Tom, which is a point I took to heart. And from that position he was fearless, anything was possible, you only get to be a loser if you play the game. He felt like being a loser was better than a spectator. He also was very aware that the game was fixed but he knew enough about the whole fabric of how this society worked to engage meaningfully. Tom Nogler was the gadfly to the undeserving winners, but he wasn’t cruel.
Tom and Janet Jordan and I went on a walk in his neighborhood and saw the house on the corner with all the Christmas lights in the month before he died. We took some goofy pictures and it was a lot of fun. Tom had stories about going to a fundraiser at that house who knows how long ago for some cause or another. It was the fact that once there were people gathered for good there that was more important than all the Christmas lights on the trees.
Speaking of trees, Tom often would talk about his time planting trees. It seemed like for him that was the hardest and the best job he ever had. He one time sent me up a tree on a ladder with a big heavy chainsaw in my hand to cut off this huge limb. This was before I was doing that sort of thing every day but as a professional I can tell you now that was a very dumb thing to do. He just watched me from below as I clung for dear life trying to cut the damn branch. I finally came down, I couldn’t do it. No matter, Tom got our friend Jeff Bartone to do it, and that crazy guy did! But why the hell were we trying to climb that tree and do this crazy thing anyway? It was because Tom asked us to and he knew we were a couple idiots and he was the smart one! I think this was after he cut his foot nearly off with a chainsaw, so maybe he learned the hard way and thought we should too.
The last two weeks before Tom died I was talking to him pretty much every day. He was beginning to believe that what I was pulling together was possible. It was the bold genius move of getting Dennis Kucinich on my part that hooked him. By bold and genius, what it really was of course was dumb luck but either way it pleased Tom. Tom always talk about how Jim Lazar would say we needed a heavy hitter and here I found him one. And here Tom found Jim Lazar one? Maybe when I was trying to please Tom he was just like me and wanted to please other people.
It was Christmas Eve and I was back in Kentucky but Tom and I were talking about Kucinich and the campaign. That’s when he sent me a text that looking back on now leaves me laughing and crying. He said, “I agree there is a lot to do, but the focus is to assemble our army of signature gatherers and keep them organized for six months. Not too complicated, but hopefully we can avoid division by coordination of the signature campaign and preparing for the election… not work ourselves into an early grave.”
He finished that text by saying, “And remember Bruce, fun is fundamental…”
I’m adding that cheesy phrase of Tom’s to all the other goofy stuff I learned from him that makes organizing a campaign the sort of experience that endures. Tom gave me a lot of pointers on how to organize over the decade. He always liked to quote the Art of War. He would talk about how he would consider himself politically as a ninja, behind the scenes and unassuming. He would tell me to be like a ninja as well, but as much as I wanted to listen to Tom, that’s not me. My inspiration was with the samurai.
However we both hated corporations and we both hated cops!
The first official meeting of Power to the Public was on December 30th. I had been meeting with people one on one and calling people for two months trying to pull it together. Finally we set a date and an agenda and pulled it all together. And there was Tom, I saved him a seat at the head of the table with the Power to the Public sign right behind him. I tell you it was fantastic. Everyone was enthusiastic, the agenda went off without a hitch and the meeting ended with action items and people standing around wanting to hang out. I was high. Tom was too.
I don’t think I realized it until then but Tom’s approval meant absolutely everything to me. The next day, New Year’s Eve, Tom and Chris came by my house, they brought some papers from the County Auditor about the initiative to give to me. We sat down at the kitchen table and drank beers and just talked. They were both relaying to me that they thought the meeting the day before was fantastic. I was grinning like a complete dope, because that approval meant the struggle of the past two months meant something.
The following Friday I got the first 20 initiatives printed and I texted a picture of them to Tom. The last thing he texted me that day was an OK symbol. The next day he died.
I’m feeling pretty heart broken. I expected Tom and I to be together through all of this.
However the campaign continues.
Tom Nogler is with us every step of the way. One of those last nights we stayed up late talking he said I was like him, an organizer. He’s said that before to me about me. I know that I am, I also find it hilarious because I’m a disaster! I can barely keep my sad little life from falling apart. I am so mad to be having to do this campaign without him right now. But that’s just how it goes.
I wanted to find a way to end this rambling story about Tom but there doesn’t seem to be a good way to do it. Some of Tom’s stories would go on like that. I’d ask him a straight forward question and he’d give me some long storied response that wouldn’t clarify anything. Honestly, it would frustrate the hell out of me, but if I didn’t have the answers I guess it was stupid of me to think that he would. So, I’m just going to figure out a way. The only way I think this story ends for me is by winning the damn campaign and stick it to PSE like he would want. Hopefully more people will come join in so I don’t work myself to death. And remember fun is fundamental.