By Claire Harlin
When doctors broke the news to Tom Pearson’s father in 1947 that the 21-year-old had polio and would never walk again, he decided not to tell his son because he knew he had the strength. Sure enough, Pearson was walking again within five months, and that was no miracle — it was a feat of his hard work and determination.
Pearson went on to complete five terms as mayor in Del Mar, where he became known for his charisma, courage and persistence, a leader who fought for human rights and protected the community against big development. And it’s no wonder that after he suffered a severe stroke in 2005, he has steadily regained speech after doctors told him he would never talk again — and at 86, he has accomplished more since that near-deadly setback than many have in a lifetime.
Despite being in a wheelchair and suffering communication restraints related to his stroke, he rallied the city to have a permanent bench installed three years ago near the Rock Haus on 15th Street, which he helped to design. The bench is similar to the one he frequently sat in for decades before it was removed to make way for the Del Mar Plaza in the late 1980s. His favorite spot, now known as “Pearson’s Perch,” serves not only to remind his many friends and supporters of the mark he has left on Del Mar, but it will give locals a place to rest and relish that pristine view as he has enjoyed for years.
Also since his stroke, Pearson bounced back from a broken hip and ruptured appendix, making him seem almost invincible amid his ongoing physical and speech therapy. Even more remarkable was his completion and publication of a nearly 500-page autobiography, which has been referred to as one of the most complete accounts of Del Mar’s history as it unfolded during the first 50 years of cityhood. And his critical medical condition was not even his greatest challenge — Pearson completed the book, “Exceptional Fortitude,” despite losing nearly all of his photos and records in a fire.
The former nuclear engineer was also honored in 2009 with a proclamation by the County Board of Supervisors, who declared Feb. 29, 2009 “Tom Pearson Day.”
Pearson is well known in Del Mar as the man who saved Seagrove Park from being developed into a hotel; who fought for the rights of jailed peaceful protestors during the Vietnam War; who rode horses, graduated from MIT and Harvard, and forgot about his crutches and leg brace, dancing the night away at company Christmas parties. He also outlawed billboards in Del Mar, served as scoutmaster of a local Boys Scouts troop, and planted Torrey Pine trees on 15th Street and throughout the city.
Just as much as people in Del Mar know Pearson, Pearson knows Del Mar. In fact, he is like a living Encyclopedia of the city, said John Wingate, who owns En Fuego restaurant and has been friends with Pearson for decades.