A little shoptalk

Tom Keough Jr. shares stories and friendships at Citrus Park mall.

Published March 23, 2007

CITRUS PARK - Tom Keough Jr. treads through the Sears tool department with a spirited step. He spots a statuesque brunet holding court at the checkout counter.

"Robbie!" he chirps. "She's my tool gal."

Robyn Cancio, a Sears employee in Westfield Citrus Park mall, squeezes Tom.

He wears a World War II ball cap and canary-colored Windbreaker stitched with the words "Old Timer" on the back. At 89, he's a head shorter and a half-dozen decades older than his tool gal. But she doesn't care.

"I'm happy whenever he comes in," Robyn says. "It's boring without him."

Tom beams.

- - -

The mall. Some say it's a purveyor of shallow consumerism. A magnet for bored teenagers. A cement money pit.

For Tom, it's joy. Laughter. Belonging. Good coffee.

In another era, people like Tom would have whiled away the hours in a park or a town square, lazily playing cards, feeding sparrows, sharing sugared stories of days gone by.

But this is the new millennium. The town square has air conditioning. Starbucks. Electric hand dryers.

It also has Tom's friends - the coffee vendors. Maintenance workers. Mall management. Security guards. The other regulars.

The mall. It's where you'll find Tom almost every day.

- - -

Sean Wilson, a mall security officer, approaches Tom quickly and leans in close.

"How are you feeling?" he asks, voice laden with concern.

See, Tom had quadruple bypass heart surgery recently. He couldn't come to the mall for a while.

At the mall, people notice when Tom's not around. The soothing stories, the snug hugs, the sly flirtations - like a partner's gentle snore or nighttime noise on the highway, they're deafening when missing.

The employees ask each other about him. Sometimes, they fret about his health.

"When he was in the hospital, I made sure the mall office knew, and they sent him roses," Wilson says.

- - -

Tom takes his stories to the mall.

His Army days in World War II - Belgium, France, Germany, England.

His old summer home in North Carolina. His current home in Odessa.

His church, St. Timothy's Catholic in Lutz, where he was a founding parishioner.

His title of "best pitcher" on his neighborhood baseball team in Gary, Ind.

His Bronze Star. The Battle of the Bulge.

His five children, 13 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren.

His work with phone companies, wrestling with cables and wires in sleet and snow.

His wedding in Ybor City. His honeymoon on Clearwater Beach.

His Dorothy.

- - -

"Nicole just got back from Australia," Tom says, walking into Stride Rite shoe store.

Nicole Figga's blue eyes shine. The store manager and the mall regular hug with the comfortable closeness of family.

"It's my birthday Tuesday," Tom proudly tells Nicole.

Nicole gasps. "What do you want? Cake? Cookies? I do them all!"

She agrees to bring sweets a week after his birthday. His friends, other military veterans he's met at the mall, are already bringing cake. Might be too many treats in one day. Tom's trying to gain muscle, not more girth around the belly.

"It's lovely, the stories he tells," Nicole says. "Life can be pretty bland without a story here and there."

A smile hits Tom's lips. He's feeling pretty darn good.

"Tom, where's my 20 bucks, dude?"

- - -

Dorothy O'Berry won "Prettiest Girl, "Cutest Girl," "Best Personality," "Ideal Nose," "Ideal Mouth," and "Ideal Smile," in her senior class at Hillsborough High. That was 1939.

That year, she met Tom. Instant fireworks.

"That day, two hearts became one," he says. "My gal, pal, life and wife."

Four years later, they married.

When Uncle Sam took Tom to Ireland for a year, Tom arranged to send Dorothy a dozen roses each month.

She wrote poetry to Tom: "Dearest, because the distance is so wide, I cannot hasten to your side. Because the miles are far and long, I cannot bridge them with a song."

In 2005, Dorothy O'Berry Keough died following hip replacement surgery.

- - -

"Did you talk about how we met, Tom?"

Marianna Tsirkonidis is on her way in to work at Helzberg Diamonds. Tom loads his scrapbooks and military medals into his car in the parking lot.

Marianna slows her hurried pace, stops sipping her iced coffee. There's a memory to share.

The day Tom and Marianna met, Tom sat on a bench outside the food court, making funeral arrangements on his cell phone.

Marianna sat nearby. "I said, 'That's so sad. Is it someone close to you?' He said, 'My wife.' He just looked at me," Marianna recalls. "You had tears in your eyes."

That day, the mall employee and the mall regular became something more.

"Words just didn't mean anything," Tom says. "You just hugged me."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or 813 269-5303.