By David Stevens
When the fire alarm sounded, Tommy Mares Jr. would put down his Coke — he could often be found drinking a Coke and chatting with friends at Fort Sumner’s Addison Drug — and rush out into the street.
“He was usually dressed in a reflective, orange vest,” said Juan Chavez, one of Mares’ friends. “He would blow his whistle and put out his hand and try to stop the first car he saw. It didn’t matter if it was somebody he knew or a tourist; he would try to get them to stop, climb in the car and tell them he needed to get to the fire station, which was about six blocks away.”
Mares, born with an intellectual disability, never went on the fire calls but he had plenty to do as a volunteer at the station. If other volunteers needed someone to watch their children, they knew Mares could keep them safe. If calls came to the station while firefighters were out, Mares would radio messages as needed. He watched the firefighters’ personal vehicles while they were out. He helped with cleanup when firefighters returned.
He also volunteered at the Fort Sumner schools, especially in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s. Unpaid jobs ranged from school crossing guard to janitor.
“He hung out with the custodian, Calvin Gammill, and helped with whatever was needed,” Chavez said. “If the gym floor needed mopping, he helped mop. But if the fire whistle went off, he was back at the station, on duty.”
At night, Mares would roam Fort Sumner’s business district and school. If he saw anything suspicious or found a door unlocked, he called police to let them know.
He was trusted and well liked.
“He had a great disposition,” Chavez said. “He was always real friendly. He spoke to every person he saw. He was a good communicator in English and Spanish. His mom taught him to be respectful to everyone.”
Mares’ mother, Josefa Mares, told a reporter in 1981 that her son’s hobby was people; he loved them all, especially children.
“Buy him a Coke and he’d be your best friend for the rest of the day,” Chavez said.
Family members referred to him as the town greeter.
He referred to area residents by a name he felt described them.
“I was Juan the mortician,” Chavez said.
The De Baca County Chamber of Commerce selected Mares its citizen of the year in 1998. The state Senate recognized his volunteer service with a plaque in 1999, which Mares’ initially declined because it had his name wrong. “I am Tommy Mares Jr.,” he said. “This says Tommy Mares.” But he was soon persuaded to accept the honor, adding “Jr.” himself with a magic marker. He had the document framed and kept it with him the rest of his life.
That life ended Sunday at a Clovis nursing home where Mares had lived the last six years. He was 67.
Those who knew him best said Mares was never the same after undergoing gallbladder surgery in the mid-1990s. He didn’t venture out of his home much after that and he became more reclusive after his mother died in 1998.
So a generation of Fort Sumner residents never had the chance to buy him a Coke.
But the old-timers will always remember his joy and his passion to help, that flashlight he always carried with the large ring of keys around his belt, the fire pager, and the whistle around his neck used to stop traffic if he needed a ride in an emergency.
We all have adversity to overcome in this life, whether it’s poverty or racial prejudice or an intellectual disability.
Tommy Mares Jr. was the standard by which we can measure our success.
David Stevens is editor for the Clovis News Journal. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org