By Dave Mendoza
In 1988 I recall attending a leadership summit for young adults. I was a lanky kid with bleached blonde hair, without owning a tie or dress shoes. It was at that time I recall growing up in a household which was economically rated at best, lower middle class. In my pre-high school years, my father worked at times two to three jobs to earn enough savings towards our first home in Huntington Beach, California. Orange County itself was an education, philosophically and as a location which fosters the old adage “Who and What will I be” when I grow up. At that leadership summit, I saw an entirely different world of formality, yes, but of ideas which I long held of my own articulated at that podium by the event’s speakers. One of those speakers was Thomas A. Fuentes, – the “Chairman” i.e., “Mr. Orange County.” He was a fifth generation Mexican-American with a booming voice that resounded throughout the room to the young aspirants throughout the room. He was an image that day of the Horatio Alger credo. A man from simple origins himself, with economic and political liberty as the ethos of his DNA – and that young man gravitated himself to the powerful and the political and became one of its own. He became synonymous with Orange County’s culture and the mandatory visit of those desiring California and the nation’s leadership mantles. I saw all of this in the man that spoke that day. More significantly, that day as I heard his story recollected as he shared it within the center of the room, I knew that life story had to be an evolution of my own. Over 20 years later it did. Aside from the talent acquisition industries more commonly familiar thought leaders, Thomas A Fuentes was “America’s Got Talent” of the early 1990s for me and I didn’t have to sing or dance or light fire to juggled objects – I simply needed to identify my core beliefs and my own gravitas. Thomas A. Fuentes saw it within me as a young man and he forced it out of me and gave me my first stage and an audience listened to me, because they saw Tom lead me up the podium on one than many other occasions.
You can assume that day I befriended him. I did. The relationship evolved over the years by introductions at one event to another until one day he took me aside and asked me to join him and his colleagues for dinner after he walked off the stage. Soon after, he called me to inquire if I would like to join him at an Ambassador’s diplomatic reception in Los Angeles. I was taken to my first, high-end restaurant where he was welcomed by awaiting fans within the corp of waiters who knew of his generosity. I would see this first hand at many dinners following at venues known and unknown – his aura was appreciated without limits or barriers of class. His kindness was legendary to the bus boy to the chef of many an establishment.
It must of looked odd to the powerful that he was accustomed to that he took to me. I was awkward, ill-mannered and badly attired especially for the venues we attended. When I spoke they listened, first because I was “Tom’s friend” but then I learned I had something to say. Tom helped with the presentation. He took me to get fitted with my first suit. He noticed a large brush in my pocket and taught me to minimize what I carry to the essentials. I went to my first country clubs where the wealthier chatted and I learned they had problems just like anyone else, they had condolences and secrets shared just as others had. Their personal lives where often more complicated or as painful and the luxury in the parking lot was often that silver lining. Tom had a summary comment after each introduction had passed and he would remark on what I noticed and what I often failed to. Every walk was a willing padawan’s tale as instructed by a jedi in his infinite wisdom.
There is a lot I can share but where I can and would we would lose readers in divergent views of partisan political agendas. This is my memorial to a man, and whereas I cherished his convictions and remain dedicated as such – they were my own then and now -he was more than a listening choir and I more so to him. He was my friend. He was a father figure of the most beloved kind. My own father, respectfully stated, was not one to teach how to use a hammer, or “how to” on a variety of matters. My home was a broken one, to describe it as dysfunctional is being generous. I learned by trying and failing, often. As good fortune would have it, I found someone who voluntarily and without self interest, cared to, in Tom Fuentes. He didn’t simply teach me to be the man I am today, “God Family Country” as my motto – he taught me that great deeds are often quietly dispatched. He taught me manners, literally, handing me the paperback memoirs of George Washington’s Book of Manners where my elbows were oft put at a dinner party. The art of the handshake, the tenor and limits to a compliment given and how to be taken, he taught me belief in one’s self was not by skill or desire but by conviction. Above all, he taught me to be comfortable in my own skin – and he started that journey. The special feeling of being something more important than self.
It was the personal side of Tom that I recall fondly as well. He made his philosophy tangible to others. Tom the leader, was also quietly man of the less fortunate. He founded the Second Harvest Food Bank and it was in such efforts his cadre of the powerful and the wealthy was put to its most ambitious use. He would shop garage sales, at first I thought it an amusing eccentricity – until I learned where would would drive to next and it was in those side trips he would find a perfect gift that had sentiment to a moment shared with a friend, or an appliance he knew someone needed but could ill afford. Every misfit object had a use.
Tom took me twice to Baja Mexico where he introduced me to a magnificent, family owned restaurant and hotel on the beach. He had seen the place develop from a small escape to extra floors and landscaping. The trips were actually an opportunity. We would deliver displaced wiring and cables for artisan families to create necklaces or other crafts to sell to market, and huge bags of beans, flour and rice to streets without roads or running water. He had quietly sponsored children with polio, and other illnesses, to visit specialists within the United States. He checked upon them and their family, regularly. I can tell you, his car trunk loaded with garage sale items, donated scraps and the like in no exaggerated manner – actually laid the foundations for impoverished families make craft work into small businesses that led to jobs in those communities. Floors of shanty town homes were built one on top of another as a direct result of helping others help themselves. I personally witnessed within one of these households two pictures adorned with flowers; Pope John Paul II and Thomas A. Fuentes.
I collaborated on over 25 campaigns up and down California’s length in the time I knew Tom, I started a group than grew into 800 strong that participated in the elections process. I gave a speech in front of 10,000 across the area we now know as John Wayne Airport and Tom introduced me then as he had at so many other events. I met Ronald Reagan, twice. I went through two cars Tom provided to me as gifts – the ‘drivable’ ones to that got me from A to B (most of the times LOL). In these instances I now had a variety of ties, dress shirts and other outward examples of being a ‘grown-up’ – but more importantly I had matured into someone who had the confidence to do so with Tom’s guidance. Becoming a guest at his family dinner table, babysitting Michelle, and his sons T.J. and Joey – it was an extended family to me. I will never forget those Thanksgivings I was welcomed to dine with Tom and Jolene and their kids, nor the times I had my girlfriends visit for his input.
20 years later, I regret that I became less involved in that part of life, the public life – and grew into my own career, had a family and moved from California to Denver. We saw less of each other and yet I connected with family within Facebook, or called and emailed my latest events. Our calls were less frequent, however I made sure that every highlight of life was communicated with him. When we last spoke I called to inquire about his progress with his liver transplant.
He knows I have a beautiful wife, two incredible children, three dogs – two of them named in a manner he would appreciate with a smile. He doesn’t know of my travels overseas and my adventures, but he would be proud I’d like to think. He doesn’t know about “Six Degrees from Dave” – but he knows me and that is all that simply matters.
Recently, It must be coincidence or divine intervention I did a random search online for a news feed on Tom’s name while settling into bed to sleep with my iPhone in hand. I learned that his cancer returned and that he was terminally ill. I was distressed to learn the announcement was last August 2011 and feared the worst that I may have missed his passing and funeral.
Thankfully my friend Nicole Suydam, CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, let me know there was still time to reconnect with my friend, Tom. I would have never forgiven myself if I learned after the fact and I had not had a chance to pay my respects in person.
As good fortune would have it, I had planned already to fly in to John Wayne from my home in Denver next week on March 3rd, Thursday night through Sunday early afternoon to take my 5 year old daughter Siena Blue to Disney as a surprise with her brother, Tino, who is now 19. I had planned the trip due to an obligation to give a speech in Singapore the week of her actual birthday on May 14th. The timing of that return to Orange County with my children was a coincidence was left me awestuck.
It would mean the world to me to have my children meet someone who had such an instrumental influence in my life. The man who bought my first suit, who had me babysit his children, visit Mexico to feed the poor, provided me the opportunity to serve as Field Representative for Orange County for President in 1992, introduced me to dignitaries and handed me my first Volunteer of the month award. So many experiences I would need bullet points to collect my thoughts – but above all he was a father figure to me who I cherished then and to this day.
He welcomed my request to visit him this week with an email I read yesterday. I was enjoying a favorite past time of mine, buying aspens to plant along the side of my backyard. I read it alone in my car in the parking lot and I am not embarrassed to state that I wept as I read it. He deserves my tears.
“I am sure that Our Lord has good in store for you, ahead.I am sure that you have been a good and devoted husband and father. May Our Lord reward you. Thank you for all the kindnesses, friendship, and courtesies that you have done for me in years past.”
Online search for a researcher has many benefits, but allowing me this one last chance to pay my respects to a great man was an unexpected one. This moniker of “misfit of unwanted toys” was once me as a lad, and he saw it differently. I look forward to my children seeing him in bed, seeing Tom as the one who took me under his wing, taught me to be a man of virtues and helped their father learn how to. My children are blessed recipients as a direct result of his guidance to share wisdom, to employ leading by example, and to love others yet to be known.
Indeed, Tom laid the groundwork into making me much of who I am today. The “El Dave” moniker as I am known in my industry, would most assuredly never exist in the form and extent as it stands today had it not been for Thomas A. Fuentes. “Making Others Famous”, “Passing it Forward” – are all things he personally instilled within me. I say this with no false emphasis, no pretense of flattery – but with all the force of my being.
Thank you Tom. You are a devoted humanitarian, father, husband, and friend. Our Lord will reward you and our own memory of your life; so well lived for so many, and it will remain our compass.
You are loved my friend.
Readers, please help me honor Tom by helping those in need. Of all his life’s passion his dedication to the “Second Harvest” is a lasting legacy to tens of thousands who have benefited. Please donate in tribute to his own contributions to the community HERE:
In partnership with over 470 member charities, the Food Bank helps feed more than 240,000 individuals each month. Those served include the working poor, children, seniors on fixed incomes, single parents, the disabled, the homeless and individuals experiencing medical emergencies or recent job layoffs.