Austin remembers a true cowboy

Published 11:18 am Wednesday, January 16, 2013

From left: Brothers Shane, Todd, Tom and Jon Clennon get together. Tom, an Austin resident, passed away recently from lung cancer. Family described him as a cowboy and outdoorsman. -- Photo provided

Residents look back on life of kind, generous outdoorsman

In a few months, when the weather turns hot and the snow is long gone, Todd Clennon will travel to the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho. But the trip won’t be for hiking or rock climbing. Instead, Todd will lay down the ashes and pay respects to a lifelong friend — his brother, Tom — at one of Tom’s favorite spots there, Lookout Point.

Austin resident Thomas E. Clennon, 40, passed away at home Jan. 8 following a nine-month battle with lung cancer. The outdoorsman embraced a life of roaming, horse riding, cattle herding and farm work, and was known for his calm, appreciative demeanor.

Tom Clennon, an Austin resident who passed away recently from lung cancer, stands on Lookout Point in the Bitterroots of Idaho. Tom's brother, Todd, will bring some of his ashes to that location per Tom's wishes. -- Photo provided

“He developed strong relationships with a few people instead of acting like everybody was his friend,” Todd said. “He never made you feel like it was time to stop talking and go.”

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Thomas Eugene was born on Oct. 20, 1972, in Albert Lea to Eugene “Pat” and Louise (Bednar) Clennon. As a boy, Todd can still remember playing kickball in the backyard with Tom and the neighbors.

“He was a smart kid,” Todd said. “He got along with everybody.”

In high school, Tom played football as a lineman for the Austin Packers. It was through the sport that he met a lifelong friend, John Carroll. When Carroll left the team to join wrestling, he and Tom stayed friends.

“I got him to join FFA,” Carroll said. “He really liked that.”

When senior year came around, Tom quit football and went instead to work on a dairy farm. Todd said it was his way to pick what he wanted and go for it.

“He never regretted it for a second,” he said. “He was his own man, that’s for sure.”

It was his entry into a career in the great outdoors. Tom graduated from Austin High School in 1991, and a few years later obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota-Crookston in natural resources management.

“He just really loved that outdoor lifestyle,” Todd said, adding he chose the life over a more traditional, settled way of living. “He recognized the lifestyle he wanted to live meant you don’t get married and have kids.”

Tom kept a saddle in his truck at all times, and always had a cowboy hat and leather chaps with him, too.

“Hey Dad, is Uncle Tom a cowboy?” Todd’s son once asked.

“Yeah, that’s what he is,” Todd replied.

Carroll said Tom was a dependable man with a strong, old-fashioned work ethic. He simply did the job he was asked to do, and did it the first time. He was always appreciative of the work before him, whatever it was, and kept his cool.

“He was always grateful for whatever he had, no matter if he had a lot or a little,” he said. “I don’t remember him ever getting verbally upset with me.”

Tom’s adventures led him all over. He cleared brush from trails in the Boundary Waters, fought fires and trained to become a trail guide. He worked on huge ranches, herding cattle and pigs with an adeptness that set him apart. Carroll said it was his calm, unhurried nature that made him successful.

“He was a horse whisperer, a cattle whisperer, a pig whisperer,” he said. “If you’re in a hurry, they don’t do what you want them to do.”

Tom was also a history buff, and studied the Lewis and Clark Trail up and down. He rode it many times, and while working as a guide, brought then-curator of the Smithsonian Dr. Herman Viola along it as part of a group, where they got along well. Viola would later present him with a Lewis and Clark peace medal.

Tom also took part in the John Weis documentary “In Their Footsteps,” appeared in National Geographic magazine and spoke on National Public Radio. He met personalities like documentarian Ken Burns and historian Stephen Ambrose.

When business died down out west or Christmas came around, Tom returned to Austin to help out at Carroll’s farm. Everywhere he went, two dogs came along: Buddy and Lizzie. Each were adopted from shelters.

In all, Tom spent 15 years in Idaho and Montana. About 6 1⁄2 years ago, he returned to the area, where he would stay until his death. As he had many times in his life, he helped out on Carroll’s farm and drove a truck for his livestock feed company.

Tom’s cancer diagnosis came less than a year ago, in spring 2012. He never smoked, Todd said.

Right before he died, Carroll went to visit Tom. Though he could hardly breathe, Tom still apologized for his difficulty talking and for not being better company for his friend.

“You don’t find friends with that too often,” Carroll said of his selflessness.

As one of his final wishes, Tom gave Carroll’s son, Noah, his riding saddle.

At the end of the funeral service on Saturday, Tom’s mother, Louise, had the song “The Last Cowboy” by the Highway Men play while people filed out of Westminster Presbyterian. Todd said the song really summed up his brother.

“I don’t think there was a dry eye in that place,” he said. “It was truly fitting of Tom.”