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.
“There’s not a thing he doesn’t know about what’s transpired in this town in the past 50 years,” Wingate said. “Especially anything political, he knows it backwards and forwards. I’ve always checked in with Tom, like a barometer, a fair and balanced filter, to know what’s really going on.”
He also said he thinks of Pearson every time he drives down 15th Street and sees the ocean view that would be obstructed had Pearson not been instrumental in thwarting plans to build a resort hotel there. A 1970 op-ed column by Pearson, written in the form of a letter to his son, also sparked discussions that led to a 10-year postponement of development in Carmel Valley, an area that at that time didn’t have a comprehensive plan or enough schools to accommodate rapid expansion.
Pearson moved to Del Mar in 1959 to work on nuclear submarines for General Atomics, and it was the encouragement of his late wife, Christine, that sparked his involvement in city government, which began on the Planning Commission. In the first pages of Pearson’s book is a dedication to Christine, titled “A love that conquered all,” which tells about her initiative in signing him up to be a scoutmaster. Pearson also wrote that Christine was “the most beautiful girl in the world” who was known for her city involvement and phenomenal crab dip. Christine didn’t know Pearson before he had his crutches and leg brace, however, she never noticed them, he wrote.
Vangel Creech, a longtime friend of Pearson’s, remembers her first impression of meeting him one morning in 1995 like it was yesterday. Having coffee at the Del Mar Cafe, now Zel’s Del Mar, he came up to her, asked if she was new in town and introduced himself. Then a real estate broker, Pearson and his colleagues gave her business cards when she said she was looking for a place. Upon finding out she was looking to lease instead of buy, she said none of the men called her back — except Pearson.
Pearson helped her find her first apartment in the area, and she remembers the way he maneuvered up the steps of the Solana Beach and Tennis Club to her amazement.
“At first I went to help him but of course he didn’t need it, and I never really noticed his crutches after that,” Creech said. “I was thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’ and then the more I found out about him the more I was amazed by him.”
Creech, a writer, became fast friends with Pearson, and began writing features for his local newspaper, “Del Mar Today.” Little did she know that, decades later, she would help him write his own memoir, and she said she is constantly impressed by and learns new things about him every day.
In a recent interview with Creech and Pearson, he recalled saving up money to buy a Jeep to drive to school at Harvard right after his recovery from polio.
“I didn’t know about that, but I’d believe it,” said Creech. “Trust me, I’ve seen him do so many things that are just amazing … ”
Creech has been instrumental in helping Pearson through regaining his speech. She said when he first began talking, to doctors’ surprise, they thought he was unable to form words, but Creech’s deep understanding of him helped her crack the code to his communication.
“When he first started talking, you wouldn’t believe this, but he was talking in French,” she said. “He was trying so, so hard to talk, and I realized he used to live in France, and he’s fluent.”
While speech is often difficult for Pearson, he can easily muster up the words to tell others how much he loves Del Mar, and how much he loved his father, Leon Pearson, who died in 1963.
Pearson became teary eyed when he flipped to the chapter in his book dedicated to his father, a former NBC news correspondent, who Creech said was as noble and interesting of a character as his son.
“It makes me want to cry,” said Pearson. “I still love him after many, many years. He’s such a great guy.”
Creech has difficulty holding back tears and putting into words how amazed and inspired she is by Pearson, but she has a repertoire of stories about him that she uses as examples. For example, she tells the story of how he once removed his crutches and threw himself into the ocean to prove to a boat full of reporters that the water was safe amid criticism of poor water quality. She tells about how he started his own TV show, plays the guitar and once raced from downtown Del Mar to Torrey Pines on a hand-powered tricycle (also called a "handcycle") as part of a fundraising event.
Those who know Pearson will tell you that he always wears the signature bolo tie a former business partner had custom made for his 70th birthday, which bears the image of a sailboat he helped his brother build as a teenager in the 1940s. When asked how he’s doing, they may also tell you that Pearson has a signature response: “I’m still here.”
Creech said when she hears Pearson repeatedly share those three words with a smile, she’s reminded of his unyielding optimism and tenacity, how he “just keeps overcoming and continuing to overcome,” she said, adding that his tenacity is what inspired his book's name, which she came up with.
She said that Pearson is the biggest inspiration in her life and that he’s been an inspiration to so many others as well.
“Just look at all he’s done and been through, and he’s so happy,” she said. “Whenever something seems wrong in my life, I think of Tom Pearson.”
For more information on Pearson or to buy his book, visit www.tombpearson.com.