Tomasulo tributes mount|Friends, merchants finding themselvesstruggling with loss

Published 4:30 pm Wednesday, September 9, 2009

By By JONATHAN CLAYBORNE Daily News Correspondent
As many Washingtonians struggled to deal with the loss of Gary Tomasulo, a local police official said that the death of the prominent civic leader and businessman was accidental.
“We haven’t found anything that would lead us to believe otherwise at this point,” said Lt. William Chrismon with the Washington Police Department.
The police department always follows up on cases of accidental death, Chrismon related.
The statement on Tomasulo came as residents paid tribute to the man whom many were describing as a champion of downtown Washington.
Tomasulo died Monday morning after falling from the fire escape on a Main Street building he owned. He was cleaning out a portion of the building at the time — working hard as always, some of his friends said.
A Mass of Resurrection will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Friday at Mother of Mercy Catholic Church in Washington. The family will receive friends from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Hillside Funeral Service.
Tomasulo, president of the Historic Downtown Washington Merchants Association, drew plaudits from friends and colleagues who wondered aloud who would fill his shoes.
Tomasulo was widely seen as a driving force behind such large-scale events as the Music in the Streets and Smoke on the Water festivals, as well as downtown improvements as simple as park-bench upgrades.
Among those paying tribute to Tomasulo was his own group, the association.
Members of the organization were encouraging businesses to post white ribbons on storefronts in tribute to their fallen president. The move was led in part by Greg Purser, co-owner of The Purser’s Chest, a downtown interior-design business.
“He’s been great for downtown,” Purser said. “He’s done a lot of good things since he’s been in Beaufort County.”
Purser said that Tomasulo would be missed, and he added: “He was a great asset. I’m thankful for the time that we did have him. I hope his ideas and hopes for downtown will continue.”
Those words of praise were echoed by a trio of mourners who gathered in front of The Pink Petal gift shop on Main Street to reminisce about Tomasulo.
“He’d give you the shirt off his back,” said Philip Lombardo, owner of Flor de Sol Cigars.
Lombardo leased his shop space from Tomasulo, who owned several downtown properties.
“He came over every day,” Lombardo said. “We were friends.”
The two bonded because they were both originally from New York, he said.
“He just loved it down here,” Lombardo added.
Seated near Lombardo was Dawn Benthall, owner of The Pink Petal.
“Once he had a vision, he would follow that vision until it was totally complete,” Benthall said. “He truly believed in downtown Washington and what it was made of, and what it was going to become.”
Standing by was Ashley Stephenson, an account executive with WITN-TV.
“Every single time I drove down this street it was with the expectation that he’d be walking somewhere, covered in plaster, on his way to help somebody,” Stephenson said.
A couple of doors down stood Billy Jefferson, owner of Main Street’s Big Bargain Furniture.
“Gary was a man with a vision,” Jefferson said. “The vision to see the storefronts on Main Street prospering and thriving with business.”
Jefferson recalled the laughter and the lively political debates he shared with Tomasulo, implying that he’d miss those occasions.
“Everybody I’ve seen is just so sad today that we’ve lost him on Main Street,” he said.
A few blocks down, the mood was somber in the offices of the Beaufort County Arts Council.
Joey Toler, executive director of the arts council, consulted with Tomasulo for years as an organizer of Music in the Streets.
“He just cut to the chase and he got things done,” Toler said. “He is going to be so missed. I don’t think we’re even aware of how much he’s going to be missed.”
In time people will discover the full load that Tomasulo took on and handled on his own, advised Toler.
Toler uttered what could have been a mantra for downtown volunteers: “When in doubt, ask Gary.”
“They don’t come along like that very often,” Toler concluded. “He was one of a kind.”
Bill Sykes, a self-termed good friend and strong supporter of Tomasulo, indicated that he was reminded of his late friend’s accomplishments as he walked downtown Monday.
Sykes said he passed picnic tables that had been placed downtown “all because Gary pulled that effort together;” he spied large, green umbrellas that had been left on stands because in all likelihood Tomasulo had been too busy to take them down after Music in the Streets. The umbrellas marked venues where musicians performed during Music in the Streets.
Sykes also looked up at the old Bank of Washington building, which Tomasulo had purchased and kept stocked with tenants on a regular basis.
He stopped in front of Tomasulo’s restaurant, La Bella Pizzeria.
“He was driven to make certain that downtown was a great place,” Sykes said, adding that his friend’s death was “an unbelievable loss for Washington.”